How senior management can start really doing stuff

Senior management

If you read the headline and recoil, let’s be clear: of course senior management does some stuff. They run the company, right? And they had to be “vetted” enough — or politically-savvy enough — to get to that perch. So whether it’s proving ROI or kissing the right ass, they do something all week. All hail senior management!

Here’s the issue. About a month ago, I wrote a post about global trust in the workplace. The number is about 46% — not bad, almost 1 in 2 people trusting their employer — but there’s a 15% “complete lack of trust” category. Their five biggest reasons for this distrust? The top two are about compensation. No. 3 is no trust in senior management.

I’d say this is pretty common at most places I’ve worked. In a standard white-collar hierarchy, you have to respect senior management. When people say “professionalism,” they mean how you dress and talk, sure — but they really mean how you behave around senior management. That’s what the term actually means to most people, but we gussy it up in a bunch of other horseshit.

So while people are mandated to respect senior management, often they really don’t. They see them as overpaid people who sit in meetings and glad-hand all day. In some companies, that’s true. In others, it’s just bitterness in effect. People have distrusted entities of power as long as there have been people, so … all this is fairly logical. Some middle manager will always screech “I do the real work, and the brass just sits in meetings!” In reality, that middle manager is probably an employee with absolutely no value-add, but self-awareness is hardly a common trait among human beings.

Could we make senior management more effective in terms of being seen and heard? Let’s try.

What should senior management be doing all week?

I’ve got my own theories. But let me turn this over to James Allen, who is a partner in Bain’s London office. He just wrote this article for Harvard Business Review on how CEOs can get more stuff done. Let’s hit his key points:

  • Liberate yourself from your own staff
  • Distance yourself from bickering
  • Create a “strategy on a page”
  • Celebrate doers
  • Be a question guy as opposed to an answer guy
  • Ignore conventional wisdom of coaches and consultants

This is a great list on so many levels, it makes me want to throw James Allen a birthday party next year. Let me go through this one-by-one with some headers.

Senior management: Liberate yourself from your own staff

This is about protecting your time, which is your most valuable resource — especially as a member of senior management. Here’s the basic deal that I’ve seen. Let’s say you’re a CFO and, thus, a member of senior management. You have a team of 10-12 or whatever. (Probably larger at some places.) Those people don’t necessarily serve your strategic agenda for finances. They are attempting to serve you directly to look better and get more scratch and perks for themselves. As a result, they’re also probably pitching and up-selling you on dozens of meetings each week with some new idea or concept.

You need to chase a 60/40 rule, per Allen. 60 percent is “must-do” tasks (serving stakeholders, basically) and 40 percent is strategy and execution level work. In my personal opinion, senior leaders should not be individual contributors — but I also realize people love to shriek about how much work there is, and senior management wants to be seen as relevant and competent, so they will go do execution-level work. It happens. It’s unavoidable.

Funny story on this section. At my last gig, the SVPs were collectively known as “The S-Team,” like they were a bunch of superheroes. They were all nice people individually, but collectively they were mostly a group that fawned up at the CEO, whose family owned the company. Every time the CEO had to fly somewhere to give a speech, like 5-7 S-Team members would go too. Talk about “liberating yourself from your staff.” I love that the crew was close, but it also encourages homophily — and that’s harmful to new ideas.

Senior management: Distance yourself from bickering

Allen calls this a problem of the “professional managerial class,” and I’d agree. The basic deal for me has always been this: at some point, you realize you’re not going higher than a certain level. When you realize this, you still want to be seen as relevant and competent. At this stage of the game, you basically create fire drills for everyone, then try to rush in and solve them. Like a small girl and the father that she so loves, you hope that senior management noticed what you just did. In a nutshell, this is why middle management needs to die out.

If you’re a member of senior management and all you do all day is put out fires started by the tiers below you, your salary is a joke. It might as well be flushed down the nearest toilet. You don’t make $250K base with a fat-ass bonus to quell bickering all day. You make that to set strategy and have your ass on the line if revenues tank. So please, get the hell away from arguments about process and deliverables and pointless meetings with no context where people just yap.

Senior management: “Strategy on a page”

Rich, white dudes that run companies love to breathlessly tell everyone how complex their business model is, even though simplicity is really the new face of business. Well, if you’re a member of senior management, one of your responsibilities is to take this supposedly complex strategy and distill it to talking points and execution-level work. Some might call this “an elevator pitch.”

Why is this important?

If you don’t understand the strategy and you don’t know your priorities, then, uh … why are you coming to work there every day? You’re essentially just running in place on a bunch of invented “sense of urgency” tasks that your ass clown manager tossed over the fence at you. Senior management needs to be defining and setting these things, as opposed to spending all day breathlessly looking at financials with other colleagues.

Senior management: Celebrate doers

I can keep this section simple. Understand the power of employee recognition and realize that, generally speaking, employees want opportunities for growth. Most members of senior management can get a fatter salary or bonus simply by blowing their nose six times in a workday, but someone down the chain has to demonstrate 19,272 levels of CAGR for that to happen. That’s bollocks. But maybe if we celebrated doers, it would be a little simpler.

Senior management: Be a question guy

Problem with most western business: we are extremely achievement-driven. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it creates a major focus on answers and solutions. That is not necessarily a bad thing either, but it often causes us to “solve” the wrong problems simply to be seen as someone proposing a solution. In reality, asking good questions is very powerful — and, in fact, it’s massively important to team-building as well.


In short: it’s tempting to be in senior management and consistently be seen as “the solutions guy,” but it’s hard to arrive at solutions without asking the right questions.

Senior management: Ignore conventional wisdom

I love me some consultants and coaches, but here’s the deal: a lot of times, they’re pitching the same approaches and suite of solutions to everyone they work with. This is happening even though senior management is telling everyone in sight how unique their business model is. Seems like a disconnect, right?

Some conventional wisdom Allen points out includes:

  • “Senior management should rise above the details of the business”
  • “It’s crucial to look up and out if you’re in senior management”
  • “Set the strategy and leave the execution to others”

All three of those bullets are complete horseshit. Here’s what happens when you try to do them:

  • Senior management chases the details anyway because they’re all secretly micromanagers
  • To be seen as relevant and necessary, up and out becomes down and in
  • I somewhat agree with this one, but senior management still needs to understand how the execution gets done — and oftentimes, they have no clue

Senior management: Final thoughts

Most companies are still organized silo-by-silo around functional expertise, and that creates huge variability in senior management decision-making. As this filters throughout a company, distrust in senior leadership becomes common.

As a result, it’s very hard to be senior management. Yep, you make a bunch of money. That’s awesome. And yep, people have to respect you. But everything will be second-guessed — and because you’re probably hoarding information at your level, the second-guessing will come from a place of no context. This will make you angry!  These peons know nothing! I drive this business! I’m building it daily!

For senior management to be effective, they need to understand the business value and the people working on that value. And then, they need to make decisions around both strategy and execution. It’s not complicated, but we often make it so.

What else would you say on senior management?

Ted Bauer


  1. I’ve absolutely seen and experienced the sense that senior management is clueless and not doing much. Often this has been caused by many layers of management all filtering info and passing it along by meetings. If senior management spent time in trenches they’d raise morale, understand their org, and lead the actual company, not the one sanitized and presented to them.

    • The “sanitized and presented” argument is a good one. I might do something with that.

Reply If You'd Like