Max’s theory is that a surprisingly number of executives have “just one play” in their business playbooks which fall into a number of categories. Building on Max’s grouping, and based on my 20+ years in business, here is mine:
- The Band Leader. They get the old band back together from a prior company. Band leaders are often surprisingly hands-off managers who swear by their teams and travel with them from gig to gig. They often alienate existing employees, viewing themselves as “professionals” compared to the regime they are replacing. These types are effective to the extent that the band’s capabilities are aligned with the company’s needs.
- Joe Process. Joe’s never met a problem that can’t be solved with process. Consultants, methodologies, training, flowcharts, and stoplight-based performance dashboards appear from the woodwork. Joe is effective to the extent that lack of process is a company’s problem. In Joe’s world, by the way, that includes everything: even a strategy problem is a process problem (“we just need a good strategy process”). What Joe fails to grasp is that knowing how to do things is different from knowing what to do.
- The Strategist. Strategists focus on developing a deep understanding of the company’s current situation and then evaluating future scenarios based on it. Good strategists are quantitative as well as qualitative in their analysis — paying attention not only to business and marketing strategies but also the resources required to execute them. Bad strategists forget what I call “the strategy compiler” — i.e., for a given company in a given situation with a given set of resources and capabilities, is a chosen strategy executable? A great strategy that’s only executable by some other company is definitionally not a great strategy for yours.
- The Cost Cutter. Cost cutters love to take cost out of a business and spot potential inefficiencies everywhere. They love scale economies, and eliminate anything that resembles rework with a passion, sometimes whether that rework represents valid customization or pure redundancy. Beware when a cost cutter asks “what exactly do you do here?”
- The Salesperson. Born charmers, salespeople generally make a great first impression, appear sincere, and are unfailingly positive. They are power-centric, often political, and are sometimes more focused on ensuring they have the power to get things done than they are on ensuring that they are doing the right things. Good salespeople are charismatic leaders who inspire their organizations. Bad ones develop credibility problems if they cannot deliver against their own high expectations and if they deliver a series of expedient “in the moment” messages that are inconsistent over time.
- The Headless Chicken. In response to a reader comment, I’ve added this type. Every so often, executives are “pattern matched” by boards/CEOs into positions that are well beyond their capabilities. When this happens, a headless chicken results — a person who is truly lost. This becomes evident quickly to those immediately around the chicken and happily, is usually only a matter of time before those in charge see it as well.
Note that as skills, each of these is required in an effective executive. Good CEOs, for example, need to understand strategy, eliminate waste, personally sell, build teams which leverage their networks, and define process. It’s only when an executive becomes one dimensional — and all about one muscle — that it becomes a problem.