CMO + OD = CEO (Uncontrollable Meaning)


The other night I needed help carrying my groceries to the car. I was embarrassed to ask, but I have a bad back and it is sometimes obvious.

The cashier at the grocery store asked me if the person bagging the groceries should also take the stuff to the car and I sheepishly said yes.

I felt bad having someone take my stuff to the car. I don't like asking other people to do what feels like menial work. I don't want to degrade them.

When we got to the car, I turned and said, "If you could help me I would greatly appreciate it, because I have a bad back."

What began as a sort of unimportant, low-level task was elevated right then. It wasn't about loading the groceries in. It was about helping me to not have my back get worse.

 McKinsey has just published an incredibly important article called "How Leaders Kill Meaning At Work" (free with registration) by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

It repeats something we already know - strategy without engagement is nothing - but with a disturbing twist:

"Senior executives routinely undermine creativity, productivity, and commitment by damaging the inner work lives of their employees."

In other words, leaders are supposed to make their employees feel valued and like their work is meaningful. But instead they do the opposite: DESTROYING corporate value by undercutting employees' emotional investment in the work at every turn.

Over the past four decades, hearing my grandparents' and parents' stories, my friends and colleagues and going through my own experiences of course, it has continually been amazing to me: Despite lousy bosses of every kind, people get up again and again to try.

People are so stubborn that way. They will make their jobs important. They will care. They will go above and beyond. All of this DESPITE and not because of poor leaders. Despite being told overtly and implicitly, seemingly at every turn, that they can be replaced in a second.

I believe in my heart there is something about being human that makes you want to serve something higher and more, and if you're focused on the meaning behind the work you can do almost anything.

So in a sense a CEO, or any manager, doesn't have to be all that talented to be successful at engaging people: They could more or less get out of the way, stop undercutting employees, and let them find meaning at work on their own.

This would take us in a different direction than Amabile and Kramer suggest. And I think potentially a better one. Follow my logic here.

1. The CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) part

What if CEOs let employees be the determinants of what is important to do at work? (See Vineet Nayar's book, "Employees First, Customers Second.")

For if employees are closest to the customers, then they know best how to keep them and to create more. As Peter Drucker aptly stated, a business (or by extension any enterprise) exists to create customers.

In fact, the CEO's first job is to create customers, NOT to do strategies - which are only roads to the destination of actually selling things to people.

The CEO is therefore the Chief Marketing Officer and every employee is really a business partner.

2. The OD (Organizational Development) part

What if the CEO's second but almost as important job was to make sure that the organizational culture was healthy enough that employee decisions made sense and were not driven by bad factors like groupthink, power politics, and so on?

What if they actively invested in the personal development and organizational culture formed by those employees? So that their second job title involved organizational development?

Because miserable people and dysfunctional groups are ill-suited to seeking out and retaining customers.

I therefore submit to you that the job of a CEO or any organizational leader is to synthesize the marketing function with the organizational development function to produce something I call "uncontrollable meaning."

"Uncontrollable meaning" refers to three new axioms of value creation:

1.  For value to be produced, the customers must want the product (they find it meaningful to their lives) and employees must find meaning in providing it to them. And this applies whether the work is private or public sector. And that meaning is internal to the person feeling it and therefore cannot be controlled.

2. For employees to do anything voluntarily (meaning unless they are being coerced into the job they are doing), they must have an inner life that is robust enough for them to produce, and a group life that is healthy enough to produce together - as a group. In other words, miserable people can't make great choices. But when healthy people make choices they hold on to them with great vigor, because those choices are as near and dear to their hearts as vows.

3. All meaning is produced locally. It is not handed down from "corporate."It exists at the periphery and can only live there, to be funneled back up.

So what is sort of shocking to me is that you have the CEO job defined as strategy + engagement when strategy is more or less irrelevant compared with marketing (because it is an outcome of what the customer wants), AND when so often they are killing the very thing they are supposed to foster.

When I think about it, it sort of makes me wonder how we get anything done at all :-)

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!