Chief Executive. Operations. Financial. Information. Wellness.
What’s it like to be one, I wonder? How do you see yourself? What is your purpose? Whom do you serve?
I recently heard some business executives refer to themselves as ‘officers’ of their company, and it struck me, as if I were hearing the word for the first time in this context. The vibe was not arrogant or self-aggrandizing. It came off not as corporate speak, as some label used to separate (elevate) themselves from others in the organization. The feeling really reminded me of how Simon Sinek describes marine officers in his books–the ones who lead from the front, who put themselves in harm’s way first to accomplish a mission. The leaders I heard spoke with an air of respect for the role ahead of themselves personally. It was almost reverent, in a way, like being an ‘officer’ of the company meant, as Sinek puts it, not just caring about being ‘in charge,’ but caring for the people ‘in your charge.’
Officers sit at the top of organizational hierarchy. They enjoy rank, default status, and the highest pay and benefits. They also shoulder the greatest responsibility (and ideally, accountability). In the military this includes for people’s very lives. In business this includes people’s livelihoods, and thus also their lives and those of their families. Setting aside for now the premise that boards, and thus the execs who report to them, function to advance the interests of shareholders above all, I’m thinking about how hierarchical corporate structure and its attendant attitudes serve us, each and all of us, relationally.
I perceive three primary, intersecting answers to “Whom do you serve?”: 1. Shareholders 2. Mission 3. People of the organization. The first two can be abstract; the last is very concrete. I strongly believe that leaders who prioritize the health and well-being of their people above all else are the most successful. I don’t necessarily mean success in the conventional business sense–profits, stock price, US News & World Report ranking. I mean relational success–manifest in organizational loyalty/pride, team cohesion, mission focus, low turnover, and high moral and community standing.
I think organizations with relationship-centered leaders cultivate and elevate officers who respect, acknowledge, and attend to workers at all levels in their perspective and decision making. They ask, “How does this affect our people?” before, “How does this affect our bottom line or brand?” When the latter come under threat, they will look for every available solution before sacrificing the health and well-being of their people, even when doing so is the easy and obvious path to balancing books and looking good. Led by this example, lower level leaders can feel safe to behave similarly, and the culture of safety cascades down to the lowest level worker. Cultures like this foster creativity, collaboration, innovation, and then multi-dimensional success.
I write all of this so easily as a non-officer. I understand that leading large, complex organizations is a practice in agile and dynamic balance of disparate interests in the midst of shifting markets and diverse stakeholders. I try to assess leaders fairly, and always with the heavy burden of their work in mind.
Still, I hold our highest designated leaders wholly accountable for their relational output. They set the cultural tone and attitudes for the organizations they lead. As a worker, I want to follow my officers wholeheartedly and without reservation. They have a hand in cultivating that loyalty in me. I want to show up every day proud to be part of an organization that does good–more good than just making money for the folks who own company stock, more good than meeting some external benchmark of ‘excellence’. In order to do that, I need to feel that my leaders establish and uphold a culture that cares about me as a person, as a member of the organization who matters and contributes. I want to be seen as, to feel like a unique and valued individual, not just a money making cog.
The officers I heard speaking of their roles with self-awareness and benevolence inspire me. They palliate my cynicism that corporate power and status bloat ego and ecclipse selflessness. They make me consider my own role as physician. Though I no longer hold any designated leadership title, I still lead–like it, want it, know it or not–just by virtue of my MD and role on the patient care team. I argue, too, that any team member also leads to some degree. We all take our cues from one another; we self-organize around collective priorities and norms of behavior, reinforced implicitly more than explicitly, every day. Even so, we may often think of ourselves as mere minions, that we just come to work and ‘do a job.’
What if we all thought of ourselves more as Officers like the ones I heard? What if we all took some personal responsibility to uphold a culture of valuing one another as important contributors to a mission of caring and meaning? Could we, as a groundswell from the bottom up, elevate and inspire our own officers’ attention to and value of the whole of us, from the top down? Can we all support and uphold one another from all corners, more visibly, audibly, and audaciously? Wouldn’t that be amazing?