CEO Pressures

He sat alone. “This feels both strange and normal,” the CEO said to himself. It felt strange because his life is full of meetings and people who want a piece of his time. It felt normal because, even when surrounded by people, in very real ways, he is still alone, for two reasons.

First, he is responsible to multiple constituencies. People who want his time represent one of those constituencies. Often one group wants something that appears in direct conflict with what another demands. Each party seems to have little appreciation or concern for what others want from him. Thus, he is alone partly because others don’t stop to put themselves in his shoes and understand the conflicting pressures on him.

Second, his position, all by itself, encourages people to withhold information from him. This CEO is not a bully, as some are. His daily challenge is to create a sense of safety for people to tell him the truth. Without the truth, he is blind and alone. But the power of his position intimidates most people. Some withhold information that would be contrary to the interest of the constituency they represent. Other times, the information is simply bad news. People are afraid to give him bad news. So, they edit it, cleanse it, and sometimes, outright lie.

If you are a CEO, this description may feel familiar. If you answer to a CEO, you can enhance your relationship with your boss when you to understand what it is like to be in those shoes. An appreciation of the pressures experienced will give you a leg up on understanding decisions that get made, decisions that may look ludicrous when viewed from only one perspective. (Indeed, our society seems to have turned into a collection of pressure groups who have mastered the art of using the media. Each group communicates with the blinding assurance that their position is unassailably logical and morally right.)

Let’s begin with a list of groups with expectations of leaders:

  • Board of Directors - We may forget sometimes, but everyone has a boss, even our CEO. Competent boards set policies and then expect the CEO to make them happen. CEOs who don’t do so are unlikely to stay in their position.

  • Stockholders - They have that pesky habit of expecting a profit.

  • Customers - Whether yours is a for-profit corporation, a non-profit, or a service organization, it exists for a reason, i.e., it has consumers of its goods or services. CEOs who don’t keep the interests of their customers on their radar screen are unlikely to succeed.

  • Employees - CEOs need employees to do the actual work of the organization. Our CEO must be sure to speak to their needs and interests if he wants anybody to show up for work on Monday morning.

  • Leadership Team - Except in very small organizations, the CEO needs other leaders to help him execute his strategies. Different leaders often compete with each other for resources. Ultimately it is up to the CEO to achieve the right balance. It is pretty easy to disappoint someone.

  • Governments - Local, state, and federal governments love to make demands on organizations. Taxes, labor laws, and environmental impact are examples of issues that the CEO must consider as decisions get made.

  • Neighbors - The local geographical community will want your company to be a good citizen. There will be multiple opinions about how to define “good citizen” that range from noise and pollution issues to the amounts of money the company “should” give to local charities.

  • The local business community - In addition to neighbors from all walks of life, the CEO must consider his company’s relationships with other businesses, including vendors. Without competent vendors, the organization will not be able to do its work.

  • Professional organizations and/or trade associations - People and organizations engaged in the kind of work that you do can provide needed information and ideas about how to succeed. At the same time, such organizations are likely to establish codes of ethics and standards of performance against which a CEO is likely to be judged.

  • Self - Finally, and most importantly, the CEO must answer to himself. With all of the pressures that exist, does he find a way to walk through the land mines while staying true to his own vision and values? It is not surprising that some lose their way, especially those who enter their office with a shaky sense of integrity in the first place.

It is ultimately up to the CEO to be able to integrate all of these competing demands. Everyone who counts on his organization to succeed depends upon his ability to do so. Research shows that while emotional skills are central to the CEO’s success, the one intellectual skill that separates star leaders from the average is the ability to see the big picture.

Let’s not feel sorry for CEOs. They have put themselves in this position and get plenty of benefits for doing so. However, all of us deserve and need understanding, including our leaders. You can serve your organization and your leader much better if you understand what they face.

The next time that you prepare a report or request for your CEO, try this exercise. Imagine how each of the groups in this list would be likely to respond to your information or request. Find solutions for objections that they may raise. Your CEO will have to do so before he can agree with your position. If you do this work ahead of time, your boss won’t feel so alone. He also might think this was the best report with the most complete information that he ever got.

In truth, this advice is not new. It is the simple advice of trying to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps individuals and companies perform at their peak. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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