September 19th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

You can probably rate the effectiveness of a CEO by the stack of papers on his desk. The larger the stack, the less he or she is probably operating as a CEO. The larger the stack, the more he or she is probably operating as a COO.

As I transitioned, over the years, from an entrepreneur who is operating a one or two-person company into someone who is operating a company employing several hundred people, it occurred to me that the size of the stack has progressively diminished.

I have always been somewhat retentive with respect to the configuration of my desk. Whether I was in college, law school, or even in my law or business office, I always maintained a stack of papers, which was my “In” basket, on the left-hand side of my desk.

If an action had not been generated, it simply sat there in the stack. If I took an action on it, I made the notes or dictated and passed it along. I might get that think back at some future time but so be it.

In the meantime, it was somebody else’s problem to act on.

Over the years, I watched the nature and status of that stack shift, not only based on my effectiveness but also based on how I was operating as a manager.

Regardless of whether I was a start-up entrepreneur, someone operating at a COO capacity, or someone operating at a CEO capacity I could always tell how effective I was based upon the size of the stack. The larger the stack, the less effective I was at running an actual organization. The smaller the stack, the more the reverse was true.

An entrepreneur’s responsibility is to do absolutely everything that needs to be done to get the job accomplished correctly. Therefore, the stack is immense. You are individually taking personal responsibility for everything to be done, right down to the last farthing of money in your bank account. It’s understandable that the stack is high, and it rightfully should be, because you simply do not have the resources to be able to hire people to delegate to, not only to monitor objectives but also to accomplish those objectives.

A COO operates in fundamentally the same way with one exception.

Whereas an entrepreneur is actually doing it himself or herself, a COO is still personally doing it through other people. The bottom line, however, is that the COO is responsible. Therefore, whether the job is ultimately acquitted correctly or not is, in the final analysis, the responsibility of the COO. The COO may do something himself or herself. The COO may choose to delegate it. But either way, the COO is responsible. Therefore, the stacks shrink, but it’s still there.

The CEO moves along that continuum. The CEO’s responsibilities are to operate through executive and management teams, not through operational teams. Therefore, what should be in front of the CEO are issues associated with performance commitments from his or her executive or management teams and external communications, which need to be either handled or farmed out. Otherwise, the entire output of the CEO’s desk is the intellectual property of the CEO: those things a CEO is thinking that he or she intends on transferring to the executive or management team.

The larger the stack on the CEO’s desk, the less effective the CEO’s relationship to the executive and management teams. The smaller the stack, the more effective.

Over the past years, I remember reading about executives in major cities such as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and so forth, who literally have one or two pieces of paper on their desks. Nothing else! They are not working on any component of operations. They are working on the company’s present, through executives and managers, and on its future, represented by nothing other than a one or two-page synopsis sitting on their desks. Otherwise, their desks were clear. Cleaned. Pledged. Polished.

I wondered how that could be, but I understand it better now.

The more I have to operate as an entrepreneur or as a COO, the less I have the opportunity to operate as a CEO. And, if I am truly operating as a CEO, I continue to monitor operations on an exception basis through the management team, but I remove myself from operational components of the company. What I am spending my time on is sculpting how I want it to look based on what it looks like today. That might take 100 employees or 1,000 employees. But it probably takes no more than three or four items on my desk at any one time.

The transition from entrepreneur through COO to CEO has been simultaneously interesting, challenging, and agonizing…but, I wouldn’t trade the experience in a million years.

Original writing date: November 2002


  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.