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When Should a CEO Step In

One of the signs of a great CEO is the business always runs like clockwork.  Yeah….right.  When was the last time you got to the end of your day without something unexpected happening that diverted your attention off your carefully planned day?

As one CEO put it, “when something happens, especially when it’s a really important customer situation, I am really torn because I know the customer wants my personal attention, deserves my personal attention, but truthfully, sometimes I make bad choices, really mess it up,  and later after I’ve created an unintended mess,  I know I should have let my team handle it.”   We’ve all been there.

Personally, I can remember stepping in on an acquisition, making a wrong assumption, and the buyer to this day, months after the incident, still won’t speak to me despite multiple apologies asking forgiveness.  As a CEO reading this right now, can you think of a time when you stepped in and it didn’t go well?  Painful even to think about, isn’t it?

After that incident, I developed a list of five questions to ask myself before jumping in.  After discovering how helpful they are, I want to share them with you in case they can help you in your leadership journey.   I hope they will serve as a guide to intelligently decide when to step in, and when to stay out of the inevitable situations that pop up daily.

I’m also a John C. Maxwell fan and certified coach, so if you’ve read any of his 73 books on leadership, and in particular his brilliant 2011 book, The 5 Levels of Leadership, you will realize that these five questions are practical application of moving from Level 3 Leadership to Level 4.

1.  Who has the most complete information?  Disaster occurs when any person takes action with only partial, incomplete, or worse yet, wrong information.  At a minimum, the person with the most knowledge is involved with solutions planning.  That person may or may not be the right person to directly carry out the action.

2.  Who is the most trusted?  Particularly when a customer situation will require persuasion or influence for a successful outcome, the person perceived to be the most trusted source will have higher bargaining power.  Notice I said perceived.  We all know instances where a great administrative person has tremendous power and could theoretically solve the customer’s problem, but the customer does not perceive that authority and power and will could feel slighted or disrespected if not handled from their perspective.  A skilled leader will always try to think from the customer’s perspective showing utmost respect for their beliefs and perceptions which may or may not be accurate.

3.  What authority level will be needed for possible concessions?  When a situation has occurred, and there is a need to right wrongs which may involve give-backs or concessions, the person chosen to solve the problem should have full authority to be effective, and to keep the customer’s respect.  Nothing is worse than a promise committed without proper approval that must be rescinded later.  That type of action causes an enormous breach of trust that could take years to recover.

4.  Who is the most open-minded listener?   When something goes awry, the best outcome is reached by getting to the root cause.  All of us at times are guilty of going into a situation with our minds made up.  The most open-minded person can hear out the customer’s situation.  The ultimate goal is to identify the root cause of the problem, then co-create with the customer the solution that will prevent it from happening again in the future.  The goal in every crisis situation should be not just resolution of the incident, but prevention of future occurrences with the same and ideally all other customers.

5.  Who has the keenest sense of fairness?  In any crisis, there are a myriad of solutions that run the spectrum from a loser for both parties to a winner for both parties.  The person selected to solve the customer problem should be able to balance the good of your company with the good of the customer in the most non-emotional, rational yet caring way.

Leadership is tricky and customer relationships given the complexity of the changing marketplace challenge even the most seasoned leaders.  The next time you have a delicate customer situation, try using these five questions.  My experience has been you will step in less frequently and both you and your customer will be more satisfied with each outcome.

Great leaders throughout history have developed a finely honed sense of when to step in, and when to stay out, all from the perspective of doing the right thing for others.  At the end of the day, you must look in the mirror and feel comfortable you made the absolute best choices.



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