As a CEO, Your Mic Is Always On

by | Aug 23, 2020

Remember that time in the 2000 presidential election when, in a whisper to running mate Dick Cheney, then-candidate GW Bush called NY Times reporter Adam Clymer a “major-league a——?” (Problem was: Bush was mic’ed-up… and unbeknownst to him, the cameras were rolling.)

Or that time more recently when in a fit of Zoom-related frustration, Delaware Senator Tom Carper dropped a series of f-bombs during a virtual congressional hearing—when he thought his computer microphone was on mute?

Hot-mic moments from like these involving political leaders seem to provide political commentators a steady stream of things to talk about. But they’re also important reminders to executive leaders—especially CEOs.

As the CEO, you’re always on stage, and your microphone is always on.

Whether you know it or not, your people are watching you. Like a hawk. They’re observing your every move, and taking their cues from you on what’s expected and acceptable.

In this way, a CEO is the influencer of all influencers. I’m guessing this is kind of what it feels like being a Kardashian (although I could only dream of having such full-bodied hair). Like the royal family of reality TV, a CEO’s actions and decisions are constantly examined. Their choices are noticed and scrutinized. People take the most inconscpicuous of actions from their leaders as signals for how they are supposed to act.

In this way, what you say, how you act, and what you project (sometimes unknowingly) can end up getting amplified throughout your organization.

If you miss deadlines or commitments, others will start to as well.

If you are late for meetings, others will start to be as well.

If you are secretive, others will start to withhold information as well.

If you blame and shame, you will see this show up in your culture.

Its like the age-old idea of “monkey see, monkey do.” Anyone who has kids or has spent any amount of time around get how this works. In the same way that kids mimic their parents, people tend to mimic their leaders.

So look in the mirror and ask yourself: What am I teaching my people? How are my behaviors—productive and unproductive—getting amplified in my organization?

Of course, this Law of Mimicry comes with great consequence if your actions are promoting any of a whole host of bad habits.

But effective CEOs also understand the flipside: that they can use their platform to model the types of behaviors and attitudes that will create a strong team and culture. In other words, they can use “monkey see, monkey do” to their advantage, and as a great force for good in their business.

And it starts by getting clear on the behaviors that you expect from others in the organization —your company’s values— and committing to living into and fiercely defending them. Getting values to take hold in a business must start with you. Walking the talk.

Then, create feedback mechanisms to ensure that you are modeling the values in a way that is consistent and visible. Ask your team to hold you accountable for a high “do/say” ratio. Constantly seek feedback on how you’re doing when it comes to modeling the behaviors that your values spell out.

Early in his time at the helm of Ford, Alan Mullaly, who is credited with leading one of the most epic turnarounds in the modern era, laid out 16 “expected behaviors” for Ford employees. Things like “ensure process discipline,” “Have a ‘can do, find a way’ attitude and emotional resilience” and “Set high expectations and inspire others.”

He printed them on a laminated card—shown here—gave them to his team, and enforced shared and mutual accountability.

Importantly, he asked his team to hold him accountable for maintaining a high do/say ratio, just as he committed to doing for them.

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