The Role of the CEO

August 15, 1998 · by Henry Mintzberg, Phd.

Whether it’s a firm of five or five hundred, readers continue to tell us they want more information on the duties and responsibilities of an effective chief executive. Dr. Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management at Montreal’s McGill University and

Ask what a chief executive does and you will likely be told that he/she “plans,” “organizes,” “coordinates,” and “controls.” In fact, these four words date back to 1916, when Henry Fayol first described the executive’s job. How useful are they today? In fact, these four words do not describe management work at all, but only certain ones of its vague objectives.

Over the years, a number of researchers have undertaken systematic studies of the work of managers, usually by having them fill out diaries or by actually observing them while they worked. From an analysis of this research, and from my own detailed examination of the ways in which five chief executives spent their working time, a picture of the top executive’s job emerges that is entirely different from the classical view of managerial work.

In the study of the chief executives of five middle-to-large-size American firms, I recorded all the activities that each performed during one week of intensive observation—a total of 368 verbal contacts and 890 pieces of mail during the five weeks. I then analyzed the reason for their participation in each, and developed from this analysis a framework of ten basic roles to describe their jobs. The ten roles fall into three groupings. The “interpersonal” roles, of which there are three, describe aspects of the manager’s work that involve interpersonal contact for its own sake.

Figurehead, the simplest of roles, describes the manager as a symbol, required by the status of the office, to carry out a variety of social, legal, and ceremonial duties. They must preside at formal dinners, greet visiting dignitaries, sign various forms and contracts, and make himself available to the important clients who believe that they merit the chief executive’s attention.

The leader role describes the manager’s interpersonal relationship with his/her own subordinates, the need to hire, train, and motivate them. As leader, the manager must essentially bring their needs in accord with those of the organization.

The liaison role focuses on the manager’s interpersonal dealings with people outside of his/her own organization. He/she spends a considerable amount of time developing a network of high-status contacts in which information and favors are traded for mutual benefit. The chief executive joins boards of directors, attends trade shows, performs public service work—all as part of the liaison role.

A second set of roles, again three in number, describe the activities the manager performs primarily to process information. In the monitor role, the CEO continually seeks and receives information about the organization to understand the milieu thoroughly. Much of this information is privileged; theCEO alone receives it because of the contacts developed in the liaison role and because of the status in the leader role. In the disseminator role the manager shares some of this privileged information with subordinates, and, in the spokesman role, informs outsiders about the firm’s progress

The last four roles describe the decision-making activities of the manager. As entrepreneur the manager takes responsibility for bringing about change in the organization. The CEO looks for problems and opportunities, and initiates projects to deal with them. As disturbance handler, the manager must take charge when the organization faces a major disturbance or crisis—the loss of a key executive, a lawsuit, the destruction of a facility.

As resource allocator, the manager decides who will get what in the firm. The CEO schedules his/her own time according to their own priorities; designs the organization, in effect deciding who will do what; and authorizes all its important decisions. No major action can be taken without the CEO’s approval, for the CEO must take responsibility for it. Finally, as negotiator the manager takes charge whenever the firm must enter into crucial negotiations with other parties. His/her presence is required because he/she has the information and the authority to make the “real-time” decisions that difficult negotiations require.

Different chief executives emphasize different roles. For example, the liaison role appears to be more important in service businesses than in manufacturing—the president of a consulting firm feels obliged to spend substantial time with the firm’s clients. The presidents of small firms pay less attention to the figurehead role and other formal activities; they are more wrapped up in their firms’ operating problems and many spend a lot of time handling disturbances. These ten roles suggest a number of key characteristics of their work. I describe nine important characteristics below.

1. The chief executive must serve as the key linking device between the organization and its environment. In the liaison role the manager develops high-status contacts, and in the spokesman and negotiator roles deals with the firm’s public. In effect, the CEO uses his/her status in the maintenance of prime links with outsiders. This is not a grandiose task. It involves frequent, occasionally mundane, contact with all kinds of people—taking a big client out to dinner, negotiating with the workers over a major complaint, asking a friend to help in securing a contact.

2. The chief executive is the nerve center of key information in the firm. At two extremes in the leadership spectrum, we can see a common bond. In both cases, the leaders are nerve centers of key organizational information, through the leader role. In effect the position provides the manager with privileged information, and this information in turn provides the CEO with much of his/her power. There is considerable evidence that most of the manager’s important information comes not from any official management information system but from the contacts and information channels they themselves set up. The brain, not the computer, is the data bank of key information in the firm.

3. The chief executive must take full charge of the organization’s strategy-making system. The four decision-making roles suggest that the chief executive runs the strategy -making system in the firm—the system by which important decisions are made and integrated. The president has unique authority and information, and no other member of the organization can take responsibility for these decisions. Decisions related to crises, problems, and major opportunities must be overseen and integrated by the chief executive.

4. The chief executive performs much work at an unrelenting pace. The CEO must run three complex systems in the firm—liaison, information processing, and strategy-making. This burden forces him/her to adopt an immense workload. Studies of chief executives find that they seldom stop working. Their evening activities are usually work related, and they seldom appear able to put their concern for their work aside. This is not a job for reflection and relaxation. It is an open-ended job, with no tangible mileposts where the incumbent can stop and say, “Now my work is finished.” The president must always keep going, never sure when the whole organization might come down around him/her because of some miscalculation. Hence, he/she is a person with a perpetual preoccupation.

5. The chief executive’s work is characterized by brevity, discontinuity and variety. No matter what he/she is doing, the chief executive is plagued by what he/she might do and what he/she must do. Hence, the CEO becomes conditioned by the pace and workload. CEOs try to keep all their activities brief, actively encouraging interruption in their work to maintain the rapid pace and flow of information. The top manager is encouraged by the realities of the job to make decisions abruptly, to maintain the hectic pace, to avoid wasting time.

6. Chief executives gravitate to more active, concrete elements in their work. They show strong preference for activities that are current, specific and well-defined and those that are non-routine. They give little attention to routine operating reports; relatively few of their meetings were regularly scheduled and almost never was a chief executive observed partaking in general, abstract discussion. The pressures of the job simply do not allow for it. Rather the job breeds adaptive information manipulators, people who work in environment of stimulus-response and who prefer live action.

7. Chief executives demonstrate a preference for the verbal media. Communication is the manager’s work and his prime tools are five media—mail, telephone calls, unscheduled meetings, scheduled meetings and tours. Virtually every study of managerial time allocation emphasizes the surprisingly large amount of time managers spend in verbal contact—talking and listening.

8. The prime occupational hazard of the chief executive’s job is superficiality. Every pressure of his job drives him to be superficial. He is driven to overwork, to adapt at an unrelenting pace, to fragment his work, to be abrupt, to avoid relaxed, reflective activities, to favor verbal communication over reading. Every pressure tells him to get it done quickly, to avoid getting deeply involved. All this is reflected most clearly in the chief executive’s “dilemma of delegation.” He is forced to carry a great workload, yet he cannot easily delegate responsibility for his tasks. To delegate, he must send along the necessary information, but because so much of his information is in his memory, it takes much time to disseminate it. Hence, the top manager is often faced with the dilemma of doing it himself and adding to his workload or of delegating the task knowing it will be done by someone less informed.

9. There is no science in managerial work. Careful study of chief executives’ activities demonstrate that there is, as yet, no science in their work. Managers do not work according to procedures that have been prescribed by scientific analysis. Except for using cellular phones, airplanes, and laptops, it would appear that the top manager of today is indistinguishable from his historical counterparts. He make seek different information, but he gets much of it in the same way—from word of mouth. He may make decisions dealing with modern technology, but uses the same intuitive procedures in making them. Even the computer, which has had such a great impact on other kinds of design firm work, has apparently done little to alter the working methods of the top manager.

The management scientist, despite accomplishments in the fields of production and data processing, has done virtually nothing to change the senior manager’s basic working habits. The reason for all this is simply that we do not understand the intricate details of the top manager’s job—the mental processes (or programs) he uses. And if we do not understand the job, how can we improve it or, for that matter, teach it in the classroom? Hence, despite all the talk about management science and despite all our investment in business school education, we must admit that we cannot really teach the essence of management. The job remains in the realm of intuitive thinking, and the world is full of highly successful top managers who have never spent one day in a management course.

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