CEO Letter

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BREAKING AWAY not only defines the innovation principles that drive sustainable growth, it couples them with the leadership and cultural elements that make or break success.” 

-Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO, GE


BREAKING AWAY: How Great Leaders Create Innovation That Drives Sustainable Growth–And Why Others Fail (McGraw-Hill; March, 2011; HC, $30.00) 


(this letter to CEOs is excerpted from the book, pages 98-101)


Dear CEO:


You hold the keys to our destiny. 


As your employees, our future depends on you, so we wanted to share our thoughts. As the company’s chief architect, you set the tone for everything. If you design a business based on cost cutting or productivity, we’ll stay focused on what already exists, trying to do things cheaper, faster, and better, but without an eye on the future. If you envision a business based on growth and innovation, we’ll be unleashed to build and create. That’s what we want—to unite in creating an exciting future beyond what any of us could imagine individually.


We’re committed to doing well, both for ourselves and the company. But we need your leadership to achieve something great and sustainable. We want to play full out, using all the talents we have to contribute to the world. In the end though, we can measure our success only by the yardstick you provide. If the measure is doing what we’re told, then we’ll be careful to do just that. If you set a vision that excites us and measures us by our ability to take things as far as we can, we’ll stretch.


In addition to vision and encouragement, we need resources. As the leader, you control all the resources available in our organization. They can either be used to create groundbreaking innovation and market supremacy, or they can be micromanaged, diminished, and underutilized. Which scenario ultimately plays out depends on the culture you create. It will either focus us on business possibilities with an abundance mentality, or it will keep us contained by fear. If it’s the latter, we will use our political skills to compete for limited resources, putting an endless internally competitive game into play. While we’re good at it, that’s not what we want.


We want to be part of something that encourages us to move beyond imagined limitations. We want to be proud of you and feel honored to be a part of this company. We want to believe in what this company can accomplish, not just for ourselves, but for the world. Please call us to a level of greatness.


Growing the company requires that all of us, especially you, become courageous explorers. Without exploration, there’s no discovery, and without discovery, there’s no innovation. That means not being afraid to fail. We’re willing to challenge ourselves enough to ensure that we do sometimes fail. And when we do, we want to feel proud that we took a chance and that we learned and grew from our mistakes. Your understanding and appreciation when we take risks will ensure that we continue to give it our all and that we don’t slink away in fear of reprisal for having tried.


When people see you or someone on your team annihilate an associate for taking a risk, it ensures that very few of us will try to expand our boundaries. We’re sure you’ve seen this type of degradation or felt its sting yourself. The ongoing fear this creates keeps everyone from thinking independently. When that happens, you have to direct or micromanage us to get anything done. Even with your energy, you can’t hope to direct and evaluate

the work of thousands of people.


Instead of intimidation, what we want and need is a safe environment where we can risk the occasional failure and speak openly to help the company achieve its goals. In this environment, we’ll have the passion and commitment needed to make our company extraordinary instead of just average or even mediocre.


You have the power to make it happen if you remember to own your own power. So much is under your control, and using that power wisely is one of your greatest responsibilities. Watch the people inside the company and see if they’re acting empowered or just telling you what you want to hear. If the latter is true, you’ll need to better harness your power to achieve your goals. Diversity of thinking is vital to creating an environment

of innovation and growth, and you don’t want to lose that advantage!


We so want to be excited about the vision you create, and we hope you’ll share it in a way we can relate to. We want to know our role in making it happen. If we don’t get the message because it’s wrapped up in pressure to perform to number-mired standards instead of achievements, then we’ll all fail. We understand there’s tremendous pressure to cut costs and promote efficiency. We agree that operational effi ciency can’t be ignored, but there are people in our organization who can manage the processes necessary to “do things right.” What these people can’t do is provide the leadership that determines “what the right things to do are.” That’s your sole responsibility.


Demonstrate that innovation is a priority by providing the needed funds and visibility for people to see that what you say is true. Actions speak louder than words. If you take risks to move the company forward through innovation and growth, we will too. We’re all in this together—or at least we should be. In the past, many of us have been troubled by the amount of time we spend on keeping innovation from moving backward instead of moving it forward. We’ve worked for people who had great potential to be innovation leaders, yet they weren’t able to capitalize on their promise commercially. We don’t want this to happen to you. Creating a culture that has successful innovation at its core will deliver big dividends. We believe that, with you, we can build a world-class organization that is united and focused on winning in the marketplace, not just internally.


One last thing: the most respected leaders we know have come to their role with the humility of a servant. As a CEO who serves, you will empower your people to do amazing things. Believe in what you’re doing; believe in what can be done; and stay open, excited, and driven to achieve an inspired vision.


You’re not in this alone, but you are the only one who can make it happen, because the buck doesn’t just start with you—it ends there too.


Sincerely,


Your People



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