CEO for a Day: Listen, Take Note and Act
Women of HR were asked, “If you were CEO for a day, what would (or did) you focus on to improve an organization's productivity, employee engagement or ability to recruit?” This is the fourth post in the series of responses.
Do you remember when you were a kid and played a game with friends, asking each other: what would you change if you suddenly, magically became the President? As I recall, our responses ran along the lines of: outlaw homework. Buy every homeless person a house. Give every kid a bike or a pony, whichever they prefer. Pass a law that dessert comes first. Ship all our extra food to poor people in Africa.
I fondly remember those sweet, innocent answers as I accept the challenge to write about being CEO for a day.
I work for a mid-sized nonprofit, and I’m fortunate because not only do I have a seat at that coveted table, but our Board chooses to make their HR Director the Acting Executive Director whenever the boss travels. This summer, when our Executive Director traveled to Asia, I had the opportunity to be CEO for a day, thirty times over.
My boss’s vacation fell during a very busy time, and to say the experience was interesting is like saying the Pacific Ocean is wide. I suppose we all fantasize about being the boss for a day. Oh, the sweeping reforms we would enact and the legacy we would leave! Zappos and Google would seethe with jealousy witnessing the amazing workplaces we’d create!
Yeah, right. Although I had a distinct vision for the direction in which I wanted to lead, the reality felt very different for several reasons.
- Practicalities. As one small example, our accounting department was working on getting signatory authority for me, but didn’t complete the process before my boss left. And so, although I had written authority to sign contracts, I could only sign for one of our many bank accounts. If you’re only CEO for one day, the reality is you’re probably not signing much of consequence.
- Resistance. I heard several times, “We can’t decide this because he’s not here.” I would push back, saying, “Oh, yes, we can,” and then I would hear it again. And again.
- Resources. While I was CEO for a day, thirty times over, I was still Director of HR. Not during a boring, uneventful time, but during a period of marked expansion, which meant both roles were extremely busy. Exactly how I kept my sanity during this month is still not clear to me.
- Reversal. As much as I knew that while I had authority to make decisions today, I was quite aware that my boss had as much or more authority to overturn them tomorrow. I backed away from one decision I was itching to make because the consequences of my boss reversing it would have been devastating to a key employee’s onboarding experience.
Also during my tenure, we got hit by the derecho which significantly impacted operations. A co-worke
r and I spent all weekend with our workers and customers, rallying the troops and ensuring people had what they needed; we continued to respond to the emergency late into the next week. And two of our executive team members each vacationed for a week or more, making it more challenging to move on key initiatives. Before I knew it, my thirty days were gone. I’d hired a record number of new employees during an insanely busy time, responded to a lot of operational issues including the storm, and helped move our expansion along, but I can’t say I accomplished near what I dreamed.
On the other hand, if I had, would the changes have lasted? Who’s to say?
Reflecting on all this, I turned to my teenaged son and I asked what he would do if he was the boss for a day. He thought about one of his three jobs and replied:
- Hold regular staff meetings to improve communication and teamwork.
- Hire an industrial psychologist to improve and streamline disorganized processes.
- Assign work in a more logical, fair and transparent manner.
Wow, at his age, I probably would have answered, “Put more Diet Coke and less Dr. Pepper in the vending machine.” Knowing next to nothing about his workplace, I can’t comment on the value of his responses, but considering he just graduated from high school, his answers surprised and impressed me.
Listening to him, I realized that it probably doesn’t matter what the HR pros would do if they were CEO for a day. Sure, we could come up with a list of dream workplace ideas, but so what? Maybe the person we really need to ask is my son. He’s young and he’s inexperienced, but he’s obviously figured out that some things could be better and he has some definite ideas for making that happen. What would happen if his boss asked him–and all his co-workers–the same question and really listened?
And so, my challenge to you tomorrow is to ask your staff what they would do if they were in charge for a day. Ask them: How would you change our team/department/branch/organization? What ridiculous rules, policies and procedures would you discard so that you can focus on doing great work? What would you add that's missing?
Ask theses questions, listen, take note and act; and although you still may not be a CEO for a day, maybe you’ll have just much influence, and effect just as much change, by putting your employees in the boss’s seat.
Photo credit: iStockphoto
About the author: Krista Francis, SPHR, is nonprofit HR Director and sometimes Acting Executive Director. She lives outside of Washington DC with her soccer-crazy hubby, two active teenagers, a neurotic cat and the best dog in the world, Rocky, aka Party like a Rockstar. In her loads of free time, she tries to keep her scooter running, tests margaritas for quality control purposes and blogs at aliveHR. You can connect with her on Twitter as @kristafrancis.