The 100 Most Important People in Your Company
July 18, 2012 Editor 0
For any business to thrive, it needs its core group of people—the ones whose capabilities are most critical to success—to be highly engaged in pursuing a common vision of success. For as long as anyone can remember, the top management team has been seen as this critical group, and the way to achieve the “mind meld” has been through executive off-sites. Though the specifics vary from one company to the next, these corporate leadership retreats are a combination of social bonding and behind-closed-doors discussion of strategy.
Today, however, CEOs need to connect not only with their most senior managers, but with broader groups of their companies’ most influential and productive people. To provide effective leadership, they shouldn’t be stealing off to small, secretive conclaves. CEOs should find ways to engage their “Critical 100.”
This group has always existed in every organization, but only recently have a few leaders begun to see the advantages of deliberately tapping it as a network. Whether it’s 100 or, in a smaller organization, more like 50, these are the people scattered across the company who are especially attuned to emerging challenges and capable of driving positive change. They might be managers, product experts, innovators, or code writers. But regardless of title, they are highly influential, connected, and respected. Since they are the people who can get things done, a CEO hoping to spur growth must mobilize them. (And as Anne Mulcahy, retired CEO of Xerox, has noted, “People need to feel meaningfully connected to the business in roles where they make a difference.”) At the same time, the Critical 100 are an invaluable source of input to decision-making. They have more direct experience of trends and business forces going on in the outside world, and ground-level awareness of what is actually happening in the business. The CEO needs their insights to read the mood of the company, to find the clogs in the decision flows in the organization, and to know what the people who are closest to the customer worry about most.
To begin leveraging the Critical 100 better, the first step is to be explicit about who exactly they are. At a recent meeting of G100 Talent Academy, Stephen Miles urged members to “find the Yodas” in their ranks: the masters of the informal agenda who know how the place works and are the “glue” holding the organization together. Who earns that designation? Perhaps the best first pass at an answer is for the CEO’s direct reports to each nominate around 10 people. Then, the CEO cuts through the politics to curate the right list, and begins investing the time to build those relationships. Yes, this is a commitment of scarce time, but as NCR Chairman and CEO Bill Nuti says, “if you don’t have ten hours a quarter to invest in your top people, you’re in the wrong job.”
The second step is to turn the Critical 100 into a brainstorming and management tool. As the CEO speaks to all invitees personally, a large part of the conversation should be seeking their input and creativity on the most significant challenges that the business will face in the next 18 to 24 months. Three times per year, the group should be assembled to focus together on specific initiatives. In these meetings, discussions should not be limited to strategic goals; they should also candidly confront the bureaucratic, political, and cultural obstacles that might prevent the organization from embracing changes. “I can get anyone intellectually engaged in what we are doing,” Nuti has observed. “I want them from the ‘neck down’—I want their hearts.”
Under Steve Jobs, Apple held regular meetings of its Critical 100 to address strategic opportunities and obstacles. While Jobs was on the right track, the downside of the process was its secrecy. To the broader organization, the composition of the group was as mysterious as the matters under discussion. For most companies, such a lack of transparency could engender crippling levels of resentment. Imagine, for example that a highly motivated engineer or product specialist is invited to participate but his or her boss is not. In a thoughtfully composed Critical 100 group, this will often be the case. Thus, it might well be true that the agendas for meetings should be kept confidential, but the selection of the members must be transparent, and the outcomes from the meeting must be shared openly at all levels of the organization.
This leads to the third step in cultivating a Critical 100 network: ensuring its ongoing evolution. Much of its purpose is to help the CEO and senior team keep a finger on the pulse of the organization and the external pressures on the business. No one can afford to let their Critical 100 get stale. The CEO should be an activist manager of the group, targeting a turnover of roughly 25% each year. There need be no shame in cycling out of the group. Changing membership should reflect rising and falling challenges. Of course, returning members will have their value to the organization affirmed, and continue to enjoy an unparalleled opportunity to learn and grow from the network—probably more than they could by simply being promoted up the corporate ladder.
Done right, the Critical 100 is never in danger of becoming an insider’s club. A good CEO will make membership in it an aspiration for every employee. Between its rolling invitation list, and the habit of sharing what was discussed across the organization, the Critical 100 can be a source of motivation broadly.
Talent, as every leader knows, is the most essential ingredient of business success—and no company can prosper by engaging the best thinking and efforts of only a small, elite group. But because no leader of a large enterprise can develop a personal relationship with everyone in it, the right group to start with is the Critical 100.
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