I was recently talking to an executive recruiter friend of mine who was complaining about his work:

All these CEOs want me to bring them an executive, but they don’t really know what they want from the person. They just want me to go hire them a VP of marketing. I need more information than that to hire someone good. These CEOs don’t know what they want.

No kidding, I thought.

When you are anointed CEO, you suddenly find yourself managing a group of highly skilled executives—and you often know very little about how they get their jobs done. That makes it not only hard to manage them but hard to hire them too.

In other words, these CEOs leave my recruiter friend hanging because they usually have no idea what the heck a good VP of marketing does in the first place.

If the CEO doesn’t have a marketing background, how do they recognize a good one? How do they articulate what they’re looking for in a new one?

Specialist vs. Generalist

Before you become a CEO, you’re managing people whose jobs you understand. As a head of sales, you pretty much get what everyone in your department is doing. You know what good output looks like.

But once you get into the CEO chair, you find yourself in situations where you have no clue what one of your employees does. You now lead every function of the organization.

My rule is simple: to be an effective CEO, you need a working knowledge of each of the functions you manage.

The CEO is unique in that it is a generalist role. You may have relied on highly specialized knowledge to give you an edge before you got to the CEO role, but once you’re in it, you need to broaden your scope. You certainly don’t need to become an expert in everything. But you do need to understand what success looks like in each functional area of the business.

My rule is simple: to be an effective CEO, you need a working knowledge of each of the functions you manage.

I’m lucky here because I started several small businesses, so I’ve done a little bit of every job. I’m no expert in finance, for example, but I can have an informed conversation with my controller. I know what’s going on, and I can assess whether she’s doing a good job. I couldn’t be a controller myself, but we can talk about billings vs. bookings vs. revenue with no problem.

Getting the Knowledge You Need

There are plenty of ways to gain the working knowledge of your executives’ domains. Here are a few ideas:

1. Hijack the interview process. 

I’m a big advocate of CEOs sitting in on as many job interviews as possible. When we were building NetQoS from startup to 250 employees, I personally interviewed every potential new hire. Part of that was to ensure that we were bringing in top people at every level, but the interview process is also a great tool for growing your generalist knowledge.

When we were looking for a head of our PR function, I told the person we eventually hired: “I don’t know jack about PR. What makes a good PR person?”

She gave me a great, detailed answer. She showed me she knew what she was talking about, and I got a crash course in PR. If you ask this of enough executive candidates, you get a well-rounded knowledge of each functional area and learn what to look for in a professional.

2. Talk to executives who are good at their job.

Have a similar conversation with other executives you respect. The obvious place to start is with the executives currently working for you. Let them educate you on their role. Ask them: What makes a good VP of marketing? What metrics should I use to evaluate your performance in this role? What outcomes should you, as head of your group, be accountable for? 

For broader perspective, also go talk to respected executives outside your company. Ask them the same questions as above. Take notes.

3. Write down your desired outcomes. 

I highly recommend compiling ideas and metrics around what you value in the executive head of each function—generally and for your business in particular. In your conversations with employees, candidates, and outside executives, what behaviors have you learned to look for? And what are the 2–4 specific outcomes you need most from this executive over the next 90 days?

It’s a good idea to check these outcomes with another executive you trust. Ask: “Is this reasonable? Could a good executive get this done—or am I crazy?”

I often say that the best CEOs are learners.

One type of learning they prize is this working knowledge of what each of their executive does. They know they don’t have to master it or tell the executive what to do. That would defeat the point of having an executive in the first place. But they know that a working knowledge is a requirement.

This education not only allows you to have informed conversations with people like my recruiter friend, telling them exactly what you need in a new recruit. It also allows you to ask the right questions in job interviews and be a great manager to your current executives, ensuring that their activities support your broader goals and objectives for the organization.


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