by Bob Lewis

Explorers, Servants, and Players

Nov 16, 20114 mins
Business IT AlignmentIT Leadership

Continuing our exploration of CEO types from last week, here are three more - explorers, servants, and players - to help you figure out who you're really working for and how they think.

Human beings are nature’s superior communicators.

That’s the theory, at least. Watching how often and how persistently we misunderstand each other, we can only be jealous of honeybees. They admittedly have less to say to each other (mostly, the subject is where to find food), but they’re able to ask and understand the answer with perfect precision.

Our hidden assumptions just might be the biggest barriers to understanding each other. When they differ, what you say and what someone else hears can be radically different.

And when the “someone else” is the CEO, it really doesn’t matter that the root cause was different hidden assumptions. The problem is yours.

Last week we explored four types of CEO — competitors, mechanics, referees, and economists — each of which makes very different assumptions about what “business benefit” means. It matters to you because if you work for, say, an economist … a CEO who thinks of the enterprise as an asset whose value must be maximized  … then you aren’t going to get very far proposing investments intended to (for example) reduce time to market for new products.

The issue isn’t whether you disagree. If you both understand that you disagree you can have a productive discussion about it. It’s when your hidden assumptions disagree that you get into trouble.

To improve your odds of spotting these crossed assumptions, this week we look at three more types of CEO: explorers, servants, and players.

Explorers are red-ocean/blue-ocean sorts of people, and probably embrace my friend Adam Hartung’s Phoenix Principle as well. For explorers, competition is for other, less imaginative people who aren’t able to find brand new, unexplored territories to colonize. Or, even better, territories others who aren’t very good at colonization have discovered– an approach at which the late Steve Jobs was superb; likewise Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and, prior to his retirement, Bill Gates.

Servant leaders … a concept first codified by Robert Greenleaf … think of themselves as “humble stewards of their organization’s resources,” to quote the Wikipedia entry on the subject. Businesses run by servant leaders are wonderful environments. It isn’t at all clear how they fare when faced with a competitor, though. Being the steward of a resource isn’t necessarily correlated with obtaining maximum competitive leverage from that resource. Servant leaders will have a lot in common with mechanics — in the end, their view is internal. Where they differ is that where mechanics focus more on processes, servant leaders focus on the people.

No CEO taxonomy would be complete without the player. Players see business as a game. Not as a game among businesses, as competitors do. As a game among individuals, which they intend to personally win. For players, the business is the playing field, not the point, and so long as they win, they’re happy.

Players are the CEOs most likely to encourage conflict among the executives who report to them. They do so for two reasons. One is that this is how they see the world. They’re competing against everyone else, and look how well that thought process has worked for them. So of course everyone else should be doing the same thing.

That’s the first, more benign reason. The second is more manipulative, but just as clear: By pitting the executives in the next level against each other, each is kept politically weak enough that none pose a threat.

Players are, after all, very good at playing the game to win.

Every one of the seven CEO perspectives presented here and last week are just as valid as the others. While each is incomplete, they all accurately reflects a very real aspect of organizational dynamics: Companies do compete in the marketplace; they are collections of processes organized to get the work done; they do consist of individuals whose self-interests aren’t in perfect alignment; and they really are assets, too.

Many do have untapped markets they could exploit given the right collections of insights, creativity, and attention to detail; and they all certainly are collections of people who need management support to do the best work they can.

And, like it or not, not only are we each responsible for our own careers, but executive-level career management really is a game. Those who refuse to play generally lose.

But just because these seven perspectives are equally valid, that doesn’t make the CEOs who prefer each of them equally enjoyable to work for. Given a choice, most of us would, I suspect, prefer to work for competitors, mechanics, explorers or servants.

I wonder what the odds are.


For this week’s ManagementSpeak, click here.