Conversations with a CEO: What BIG Issues They REALLY Think About!

While I often speak to conference audiences of 500 to 5,000, I also do a lot of sessions for CEO’s and other senior management teams in small, leadership oriented events, providing a key message on the necessity for innovation in the high velocity economy.

While I do a lot of major keynotes for associations and conferences — yesterday, I opened the HR Southwest conference in Dallas with an audience of about 2,000 — I also do a lot of small, executive oriented sessions.

These range from groups of 10 people around a boardroom table, or a senior leadership group of 100 or so executives. I’m usually brought in by a senior executive to provide a talk on the future trends affecting a particular industry; to help them re-frame the concept of innovation; or a combination of these two key themes.

Regardless of the industry and size of the group, the planning for such a talk often involves a long conversation with the CEO or other senior member of the management team in advance. There are issues that are on the table; often, they’re planning to out of the office for a day to think, strategize and shape their focus, and I play a key role in this big investment of time. We spend time talking about how I can customize my insight, and hone the message that I can deliver.

I always scribble down little notes of our conversations; I use these when I start my research and when I’m pulling together a slide deck. And through the years, I’ve kept many of these notes; they provide tremendous, wonderful insight into the mindset of a typical major CEO or other senior executive. And spending time with so many of these folks has helped to shape the direction of one keynote that I do that is particularly popular : “What Do World Class Innovators Do That Others Don’t Do?”

I was searching through a pile of these notes the other day, and came across one from a few years ago that I think does a really good job of reflecting what’s on the mind of an executive that runs a major, global organization. This particular individual described to me what he hoped his organization and team would be able to develop in terms of core innovation competencies:

  • excel at seeing opportunity: the organizations needs to get better at spotting new emerging opportunities, whether with markets, customers, or products. It’s been very, very inwardly focused, and is starting to lose out on many great opportunities because the team seems to be too busy looking inwards, solving problems and firefighting, rather than looking outward to see ‘what comes next, and what should we do about it?’
  • adapt to fast paced markets: there needs to be a clear recognition that customers are more demanding; that the value proposition of the product line is being subjected to greater pressure than ever before; and that some competitors are moving faster in reinventing the product line. The company is competing more on price than on the value of the product, which is leading to commoditization. They’ve got to get better and ‘speed up’ the process of adapting to all of this change.
  • watch for disruption: clearly there are new organizations, particularly in the technology space, looking at the industry and thinking about ways to change the business model. That’s a significant challenge, and the leadership team needs to understand the potential for disruption, and think through opportunities for a strong offence and a good defence to deal with this reality.
  • realign innovation pipeline: for years, all R&D has been done internally, yet there’s a realization that the entire process of R&D has changed in almost every industry; the organization needs to be more outward  in terms of sourcing external ideas, developing unique innovation partnerships, and seeking to align itself to the ideas of some of the small start-ups that are changing the process of development within the industry.
  • ride generational change : there’s a recognition that the next generation of digital natives are now making their presence well known throughout the organization. They’re impatient for change, full of ideas, and ‘chomping at the bit’ to pursue innovative ideas. The senior management team needs to be thinking about how best to utilize their uniqueness as an opportunity, rather than trying to shut down their thinking because the don’t fit the historical norms of the organization
  • align to technological velocity: there is a clear understanding that the next wave of technology will not be about streamlining process or providing efficiencies; instead, it is all about redefining the industry, changing products through pervasive connectivity, and accelerating change in many different ways. The organization needs to learn to ‘innovate at the speed of Apple’ as this fundamental change unfolds
  • re-assess skills: there is a big mis-match between what the organization has in terms of skills, and the skills that it really needs to accomplish all of the above. It needs to get better at ‘getting the right skills at the right time for the right purpose.

If you take a close look at this list, prepared from my hastily scribbled down notes, you’ll get a sense of what keeps a modern-day CEO up at night.

And it will also put into perspective the starting point at which I begin to pull together my talk.

For more information: “Jim’s CEO / Leadership Meetings


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