The CEO is Responsible for the Why and the What. The Team is Responsible for the How

Sometimes, a client gets on my nerves. Huge shock, right? Usually it’s when they ignore some pretty basic advice. For months. So much wasted time. Luckily, Constant Reader, now I have this blog. So let’s dive in.

A CEO client decided a few months back that he absolutely needed this one thing. Not to be obtuse — without also giving away too many personal details about my clients — let’s say this “thing” was an internal system to make his employees smarter and more efficient. 

I’ve been telling him he really doesn’t need this system. Other people have told him he doesn’t need this system. And for months he has insisted that he definitely needs this system. We run the numbers, and I explain why it doesn’t add up. Over and over again.

He eventually assigned someone on his team to spend three months researching this system. Guess what. That person ultimately reported back that the company well and truly does not need this fucking system. With graphs and numbers and everything. The surveyed employees feel that the current system is working just fine and their customers agree. The CEO’s response? We need this system.

When I would ask why he wanted everyone to be smarter, he couldn’t articulate a response. I’d ask him how smart his employees need to be (i.e. how would we know that the new system was even successful) and still no answer. Finally, after months and months of drilling down into WHY he wanted it, we arrived at the real problem: He wanted an internal system that would make HIM smarter. He simply felt out of the loop.

Now that is a lot easier, and makes way more sense, than a company-wide rewrite of a process everyone already uses and enjoys. 

Did the endless back and forth and ongoing refusal to take the advice of her team frustrate me? Oh dear god, yes. But it also perfectly encapsulates a great lesson that I frequently give to my clients. As a CEO, it’s your responsibility to clearly articulate WHY something is important and WHAT success looks like. It’s your team’s responsibility to figure out HOW to accomplish that goal.

Going back to our example: If, from the beginning, our CEO had articulated that he wanted an internal system to better inform him about certain aspects of his company, a solution could have been devised and implemented in a few days. Instead, months were wasted because he fixated on a solution before he could even frame the problem to himself.

It goes back to this blog’s very first post. The CEO’s #1 responsibility is to communicate the vision. #2 is to hire great people so they can execute on it. 

“Build shit” is almost never the responsibility of a CEO. In the earliest days of a startup, a CEO does actual, tangible things, but once they’ve hired someone else to handle an area of the business, it’s that person’s responsibility, not the CEO’s. The entire reason you hire someone is to act as an accelerator. If you’re still taking responsibility for their work, you’re not fully utilizing that person and freeing yourself to work on new things. And, “please, tell me exactly how to do my job” said no competent person, ever.

If you have a problem, do you honestly care HOW it gets done, as long as it works? Spoiler alert: the correct answer is no. Sure, you probably have conditions of satisfaction — the solution can’t cost more than X dollars, or require new software systems, or disrupt your supply chain. This is all a part of what success looks like. Once that’s defined, if your team can get the job done with helper monkeys in cute little vests, more power to them.

As CEO, it’s up to you to communicate what’s important to the company. This is the north star that frames so many strategic and tactical choices your team makes daily. It’s up to you to define what success looks like. This further constrains the available solution set for a strategic problem. If you do your job well, and your employees don’t deliver, that’s on them. Feed ‘em to the sharks for all I care. But if you don’t take the time to define success and then you don’t get an effective solution, that’s on you, buster. Bad CEO, no cookie.

Recently, I was talking with a friend of mine about how she manages conflict between executives at her company. She told me she considers it a personal failing when her direct reports are at loggerheads,. She recognizes that conflict means she didn’t do a good enough job communicating what needs to be accomplished. And when she gets involved, she takes great pains to avoid picking sides or suggesting options. She simply focuses on better explaining the whys and the whats. When you clearly define success to all responsible parties, everyone is working towards the same goal, and it’s not hard to find consensus.

A CEO should rarely focus on how something is accomplished. It’s a waste of focus. And once the team can show how their idea will be successful, the CEO needs to back them. It’s bullshit to say “I don’t like that.” It’s absolutely cool to remind them of the definition of success and ask how their plan will achieve it, pointing out possible pressure points and failures. That’s working together and encouraging your team to work at their highest level. 

But if you’re a CEO and you’re pushing back against your team’s plan for how to accomplish a goal you’ve set for them, take that as a sign that you haven’t fully defined success. Take a step back, drill down on why, and trust your team. You hired them for a reason.

— Eric Marcoullier

Need help articulating the the Whys and the Whats for your company? The CEO referenced in this article refers to me as the “CEO Whisperer” because I’m the only person he works with who can pull out those things out of him. Honestly, I’m not that impressive, it’s just a willingness to ask “but why” over and over until I’m blue in the face. A coach isn’t any smarter than you, we’re just blessed with some emotional distance from your frustrations. If that sounds like something you’d find valuable, then let me know at or visit my coaching site at

(Photo by Israel Palacio on Unsplash)

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