Pat Lencioni On Being ‘The CEO You Were Built to Be’

In a new book, the bestselling author lays out a plan to help leaders—and organizations—thrive. 'Your company needs you to do the things that give you joy.'

A couple years ago, Pat Lencioni had a big idea. That’s not terribly unusual. The bestselling author of a host of business classics including The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage, Lencioni’s long been known for his insights into what ails organizations—and his ability to provide pragmatic advice about how to fix them.

But this time it was a bit more personal. Stressed and grumpy from the Sisyphean prodding of staff that came with running his consultancy, The Table Group, he felt stuck, frustrated. It’s not an uncommon feeling for any mid-50s leader at a mid-sized or small firm (or even a big one). Most of us just accept it and “push through.” But Lencioni being Lencioni, he started digging in with his Table Group team—why did he feel this way? What exactly drove that feeling? Did his work have to be like this?

The result is a new book: The Six Types of Working Genius: A Better Way to Understand Your Gifts, Your Frustrations and Your Team (Matt Holt, Sept. 2022). It’s a rich guide to making sure your organization has the right mix of passions and skills to get imaginative, high-quality work done—in a sustainable way. That goes for the CEO’s office, too.

“People will say to many CEOs ‘You need to work less,” says Lencioni. “No. Working less but doing things that don’t bring you joy and energy is not going to change your life. What you need to do is do the kind of work that gives you joy and energy.”

Lencioni, a longtime collaborator with Chief Executive Group, laid out an early version of Working Genius in the pages of Chief Executive not long after he’d first developed the idea. It involves taking an assessment to unearth which “Geniuses”—Wonder, Invention, Discernment, Galvanizing, Enablement, Tenacity—are yours, and which are not.

The trick is to then map out who’s got what on the team, make sure you’ve got all the bases covered, and that people are doing work (most of the time) that’s aligned with what they’re good at and that they love. (There’s no substitute for reading the book and taking the assessment yourself, but the article is a good introduction/high-level explanation of Working Genius.)

I asked Lencioni recently about what he’s learned about applying Working Genius to the CEO job. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

How has Working Genius changed your own personal working style, and how has it changed your company?

I just had an intense two-and-a-half-day business trip back east where we launched the book. We flew up to see a client in Washington D.C., and I did speeches and a talk with them and all these people, and I came back and I said, “That was so awesome.”

It was not exhausting because I did not have to say to people, “Hey, you guys, come on. We need to be thinking about this,” or, “What are we gonna do to follow this up?” There were other people whose job was to galvanize. They said, “Pat, we want you to be inventive and discerning, and they turned me loose. I worked harder than I ever have, and I came home and said, “That was so much fun.”

Every CEO wants to have the experience that you’re talking about, where they’re able to focus on the things—not just that they love—but that also add the most value in their company. Give us some tips.

You are meant to do your job as it largely corresponds to your genius, and you are meant to not abdicate but to bring other people around you who compliment you based on their genius versus yours.

The truth is, no CEO has all the things they wish they had to be a great CEO. Many of them will choose to work on their weaknesses and that’s not the right thing.

Michael Jordan didn’t become the best basketball player ever by just working on his weaknesses, he did it by leaning into his strengths, which allowed him to have no pressure to get better at the things he wasn’t as good at. So many times we take a CEO and say, “Well, you’re naturally good at these things, so let’s work on these other things,” when it’s so much better to say, “No, let’s bring other people around you that can fill those gaps in for you.”

Self-awareness and the humility and confidence to bring other people in to do things that they’re better than you at is what makes a great CEO. You’ve got to think about who you are and the gifts that God gave you.

How did you learn to let go and let the people around you support you?

It was the relief of seeing my [Working Genius] results and knowing, “Oh, so those aren’t my gifts.” We grow up feeling guilty about the things we’re not good at.

I worked at Bain my first year out of college, which was the best job to have. I failed. I survived for two years, which was longer than others, and I got through it. But I was not successful, and I thought, “Okay, I’m a fraud.” I was lazy and dumb. I look back now, and I go, “Oh, no, that was just the wrong job for me.” Nobody that knows me thinks I’m lazy or dumb. But because I was doing a job that I had no gifting in, I was critical of myself.

Guilt and judgment come from not understanding that nobody’s meant to be good at all these things. Tom Brady is not supposed to run out of the pocket and try to dive for a first down. And similarly, Lamar Jackson isn’t supposed to stand in the pocket.

CEOs need to realize that, too. So no more guilt, no more self-judgment around what you’re not great at. Be the CEO that you were built to be, and let other people fill it in. Stop trying to be like Jack Welch or whoever else you’re trying to emulate. You are not them.

Now, those CEOs can’t abdicate. They can’t say, “I don’t like doing that, so therefore it’s not important.” It’s not that I should never do stuff I don’t like, but this whole self-mutilation of forcing yourself to do things you don’t like and thinking that’s making you stronger is a false premise. We are meant to spend most of our time as much as possible in our area of Working Genius and allow others around us to do it too. The irony of this is that when I step out of the things that I’m not good at, there’s somebody else who gets to step into it.

But it does take some courage to make this kind of change, right? Talk a little bit, if you could, about getting the courage to do some of this stuff.

Here’s the challenge. Some people have gotten really good at things they don’t like. In fact, I will even say, part of success in life for people like you and me is that our parents or our environment taught us to power through things that we didn’t like. And that’s the key to this. It’s about joy and energy. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s sustainable and it’s allowing you to be your best.

Your company needs you to do the things that give you joy and energy. It really does. Organizational health comes from the top down. Because if the CEO says that, then he can look at other people in the organization and say, “How can we make you twice as productive and more engaged?”

It’s a bumpy economic time. Give us the argument for taking a breath to do some of this while we’re powering through a difficult headwind.

The new challenge is going to be to get more done with less people. The way to do that is to help people discover their geniuses. Their morale goes up, their productivity goes up, the team performance goes up.

In a world where resources are scarce, tapping into the resources you have by understanding them, this is the time to do this. We overhire because we’re not adequately using the talent that we have.

 


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