Contrary to popular belief that CEOs just need to be great leaders and that domain expertise is not critical for their success, my experience tells me that truth lies elsewhere. Look at the top 6 largest companies in the world by market cap:
2. Alphabet (Google’s parent company)
6. Berkshire Hathaway
Each of the CEOs - Steve Jobs, Larry Page / Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet - in the above companies were / are the best domain expert of their business. The creativity, innovativeness and customer impact displayed by these businesses which led to their market dominance is the direct outcome of the craft mastery / domain expertise of the founders, their commitment to make a difference to their customers implemented through the process of business excellence and the courage sourced in leadership depth to go where no one had gone before.
You could be a Founder CEO or a Professional CEO hired to manage and grow the business. Founder CEOs usually start their journey with a focus on craft mastery / domain expertise but as their business scales up, the founder CEOs get busy with growing the business and lose focus on learning and growing their domain expertise. If growing your business ongoingly is your commitment, then continue to lead from the front by continuously learning to remain the best expert in your business, not only in your own country but in the world.
Professional CEOs, if external hires, may even be hired from another industry and therefore may not have the sound grounding in the business of their company. If you find yourself in such a situation, the best is to don a student’s hat and learn with velocity and vigour about your new domain.
From examples below from a referenced article in INC, it is evident that it is more than a co-incidence that super successful companies are usually headed by domain experts who also have strong business leadership skills instead of only business skills.
“Instagram's CEO Kevin Systrom was a self-taught programmer. Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg began writing software before entering high school, and still keeps a hand in coding today.
Dropbox CEO Drew Houston wrote the first lines of code for his company from a Boston train station. WordPress co-founder (and founder / CEO of WordPress's parent company Automattic) Matt Mullenweg used his technical skill to help build the democratic publishing platform from the ground up.
Microsoft's Bill Gates, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Google's Larry Page...the list goes on. Each of these leaders possessed a deep understanding of the technology that their business was built upon.”
Quoting from articles in Harvard Business Review:
“Studies suggest that the best leaders know a lot about the domain in which they are leading, and part of what makes them successful in a management role is technical competence.
Another study found that employees are far happier when they are led by people with deep expertise in the core activity of the business. Happier employees means greater productivity. One study found that quite small boosts in happiness went on to produce a reliable 12% extra in employee productivity. It has recently been demonstrated that firms with happy employees go on to have better stock-price growth in the future.”
All the above research does point in the direction of the importance of craft mastery / domain expertise along with leadership depth and business excellence skills for the CEO to successfully navigate and lead their organization successfully and profitably from good to great.
Even without these studies and huge amount of research to understand the importance of the CEO being a domain expert for business success, there is a very logical reason why it is so. You see, your business will scale up only if your people are best in whatever domain they are in. And, we know that the only way to inspire a certain behaviour is by modelling that behaviour. It also has a phrase for itself. It’s called ‘leading from the front’. Is there any other way to lead than to do 10X yourself of what you want your people to do?
Therefore, if you choose to be a domain expert apart from being a leader and a business manager, your people will choose to be experts in their domain besides displaying business excellence and leadership depth at their work.
I often meet business owners bored of the business they are running and looking to do something else. On digging deeper, I always come up with someone who stopped learning on the journey somewhere. When I meet a CEO full of life and still in love with their business, it is usually someone who is continuously deepening their understanding of their craft / domain by learning on a daily basis.
You may love your craft, your domain but to have your whole Being lit up by your passion and joyous pleasure of working, you want to have the commitment to learn something new daily to grow and evolve to be the best in your field.
Take inspiration from the CEOs of the top 6. They spend large amount of their time learning. Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway spends 80% of his time reading. Steve Jobs was a self-confessed avid reader. Bill Gates reads one book a week.
“Still, reading books is my favourite way to learn about a new topic. I’ve been reading about a book a week on average since I was a kid. Even when my schedule is out of control, I carve out a lot of time for reading.”
Jeff Bezos has a habit of reading books too. He is very passionate about books and reading. Mark Zuckerberg is also a strong believer in reading to learn and grow.
These CEOs read not only to expand their horizons within their specific domain but also to go beyond the blinkered view of one’s work. It is the potboiler of ideas sourced from different variety of reading that expands their creativity, innovativeness and ability to see an opportunity that most miss.
So, here’s the recipe of success for an aspiring CEO and for current chief executives, a roadmap to increase their impact in the world:
a. Stay ahead of your industry by learning and growing to be the best in your domain. Learn all you can to master your craft to become the key person of influence of your industry.
b. Learn and implement Business Excellence by giving your employees a purpose, a cause to work for; starting with yourself. Deeply understand your customer community to make a dent in their Universe so that you spot Blue Oceans that most CEOs chasing sales targets would miss. And, if you can build your organization to function even better after you, you have truly implemented Business Excellence.
c. Increase your Leadership Depth to nurture a culture of trust, vulnerability, compassion, collaboration and contribution because all these are the critical inputs for enabling performance, productivity, creativity and innovation at all levels in the organization; which ultimately results in exponential profitability.
Michelangelo, the Master Artist, who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art is supposed to have said at 87 years of age - I am still learning.
Wishing you and your team the joy of the journey with purpose, mastery and impact.
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