There are two kinds of CEOs: those that do no more than keep the lights on and those that revolutionize industries. While companies won’t necessarily suffer with the first kind of CEO in the short term, it is the second that exemplifies true leadership — the kind that will keep a company on its toes and always ready for what’s around the corner. And in this economy, it’s that kind of innovative thinking that will keep the lights on.
Here we take a look at a few top CEOs to see if we can glean a few lessons.
1. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook
“We build the social technology. They provide the music.”
When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook, there were plenty of other social sites to contend with. But the main competitor, MySpace, took the previous decade’s idea that the consumer could “have it all” to mean that users should have as much power as possible to create their own platform. The result was a chaotic, overloaded mess that was at times barely functional.
Zuckerberg recognized that “having it all” meant connecting with all via a streamlined, connected social experience.
The platform he created with Facebook exuded a singularity of vision, swapping MySpace’s disparate, jarring, user-generated design with a pared down, functional system that put the focus on connection rather than on its users’ knowledge of HTML.
As CEO, Zuckberg then used the lens of this core mission and product to find, create and open seemingly endless applications and markets, all around the basic idea that people want to hear from each other more than they want to hear from anyone else.
Lesson Learned: Dig beyond the surface of stated consumer needs to find what’s driving those needs and let that core guide everything you do.
2. Ron Sargent, Staples
“Get your hands dirty.”
Whether he’s donning that red Staples shirt and spending the day as an associate or emailing customers directly, Ron Sargent isn’t the kind of CEO that isolates himself from the everyday workings of his company.
Since he became CEO in 2002, the company as a whole has become more people-centric, making Staples a better place both to work and shop. While there are notable incentive programs that encourage stores to compete with each other for better customer service, it’s Sargent’s leading from the top that sets the precedence.
And Sargent, like Zuckerberg, does a great job of setting priorities around that customer core.
“Whatever you pick,” Sargent says, “make sure you clearly communicate the goals and objectives across the company, and that you have the ability to execute on the plan. Keep it simple—to a handful of priorities—otherwise you can get distracted and add complexity. I call it complexity creep.”
Lesson Learned: Make your priorities simple, communicate clearly, and stick to your core focus.
3. Jeff Bezos, Amazon
On interview questions: “Tell me about something that you have invented. Their invention could be on a small scale–say, a new product feature or a process that improves the customer experience, or even a new way to load the dishwasher. But I want to know that they will try new things.”
It’s not a surprising move, as Jeff Bezos himself invented the concept of selling books online — something no one thought customers would want. But what he did next was almost more innovative: allowing affiliates to market all kinds of goods on Amazon.
This was a key pivot for Amazon away from a producer of products to a company that hosted, supported, and marketed the infrastructure that would almost single handedly invent e-commerce. The same can be said of Amazon’s cloud-hosting services, which support companies as big as Netflix, and even for the Kindle, which, though a product itself, can also be seen as a revolutionary book platform.
Lesson Learned: The product that made you big may not always be the core of your business.
From Mark Zuckerberg to Ron Sargent to Jeff Bezos, the top CEOs have plenty to teach us. And yet, every lesson seems to come back to finding your core and keeping it simple…on a global scale.
image credit: shutterstock
James Daugherty enjoys marketing, social media, and technology. He is the outreach coordinator at Distilled Creative. Visit his blog and connect on Twitter.