03 June 2006

The CEO needs to do what?

Having spent the last three years thinking a lot about the roll of the designer in the tech business hierarchy, it was with great interest that I read Bruce Nussbaum’s recent article in Business Week. His primary point is that CEO’s need to not only embrace technology, but needs to use it. I could not agree more. But I think it is just a small portion of what a CEO needs in order to be effective.

There is a triangulation necessary to bring vision to a company (and that is the primary role of the CEO – for the moment, we’ll leave the day to day running of the company to the president). First, he CEO must be cognizant of the customer’s needs, second, gauge the temperate of the industry and third, monitor the effects of macroeconomics on the company’s future. These are massively complex insights, none of which can be effectively condensed to an executive brief. These understandings must be comprehensive.

Knowledge tends to lead to either one of two outcomes for an individual. Either it provides vision, or it provides capabilities. At the upper end of the corporate hierarchy, if all you gain is capabilities (tactical skills), you have likely reached your potential.

Nussbaum’s point is absolutely correct if either the industry demand is tech oriented, or if the audience for its offerings is technically savvy. Otherwise it is a secondary consideration at best. There are plenty of CEO roles that are well executed by dispatchers of email and search tasks.

A troubling side note to all of this is the notion that companies should be run by (fill in your profession here). In a dated post by Diego Rodriguez’ metacool, Diego states, “I’m an engineer by training, so I’m biased, but I’ve long believed that product companies are best run by engineers/people who grok stuff at a deep level.” I think we all have a bit of that bias whether we come from engineering, accounting, operations or design. Our skill set, our perspectives, our insights are the most important. We tend to passionately believe that what we do plays a critical role in the company. [By the way, I have somewhat recently been convinced that designers and engineers deal with fundamentally the same issues.]

As I progressed deeper and deeper into school, finally immerging with both my share of knowledge and baggage (or as Diego puts it “bias”) I realized that the outcomes of this knowledge, vision or capabilities, would only take me so far. By far the most important skill I could have in a corporation is the ability to work along side, manage and communicate with the other humans in the organization. Very little is accomplished in the modern world as a solo effort.

So what does this mean to the CEO? If you are in the tech industry, by all means be technically adept. If your customer’s technical demands or your industry is being driven by new technology, brush up – immerse yourself and know that technology. Otherwise, keep to the triangulation above and focus on your ability to manage and work with humans. The higher up in the organization you go, the more important those human interdependencies become. Knowing by doing is great, knowing by seeing down the road is even better.