Some years back, the CEO of Jewel Tea Company referred to himself in a Harvard Business Review article as The First Assistant to his direct reports. By that, he meant that he saw himself as the person to whom his department heads could turn for support in accomplishing difficult or unusual projects and that he could stand in for them when they were ill or on vacation. Do you operate in this manner? Should you? While sounding supportive this approach also contains inherent risks.

When running my advertising agencies, I initially thought this was a good approach. It would allow me to keep a good eye on the business and to develop close relationships with my colleagues; they would feel supported and appreciated. However, as I look back on that style now, I also see the risk of becoming more operational than a CEO should; it can distract from his responsibility as the visionary and strategic leader. It can also risk undercutting company department heads in the eyes of their staffs or, in our case, clients. And, it forgoes the opportunity of providing leadership responsibility and experience to their own number ones when they are ill or on holiday.

Philosophically and on the surface, the idea of the “Servant Boss” has much appeal. But the risks also need cosideration before adoption of the style!

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About Wilder Baker

Retired advertising agency CEO now active as management consultant with focus on marketing and marketing communications. Work with small companies and business owners to develop their business over the long term. My relationship with clients often evolves into that of trusted personal, as well as business, adviser. I also take short term projects as I can be helpful. I serve on the Board of the American Advertising Federation where I am a past Chairman and am a Trustee of the Hyde Leadership Charter School in New York City.
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  1. Preston Bealle says:

    There’s no real answer to that, because managing a business is like managing a baseball team. Some managers did it with hugs, like Tommy Lasorda, and some with threats and screaming, like Billy Martin, and others with spreadsheets, like Tony LaRussa. All worked very well at various times. And I’ve seen a company move from a benign, supportive and inclusive CEO to a much more demanding and blunt one, sometimes it helps a great deal and sometimes it hurts. The point is that companies have their own cultures and needs that don’t follow rules, so you have to read them individually. What works at Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t work at Goldman Sachs. Most of it depends on what type of employees you have, whether they are “lifers” in a conservative industry or aggressive people who tend to want to climb as fast as they can, no matter what.

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