Paul Witkay in Smart Business: “Super-CEO Vision”

August 01, 2011

Every good CEO must be able to deal with the standard issue CEO requirements such as: vision, leadership, strategic thinking, raising capital, team building and the ability to adapt to constant change while addressing a steady stream of fresh challenges.

Yet as the founder of the Alliance of CEOs, I have often been asked what makes the difference between good, solid CEOs and truly exceptional visionary leaders. I won’t pretend to have all of the answers, but the past 15 years have offered me the opportunity to gain a few insights. So what differentiates the great CEOs from the good ones? It’s the ability to see around corners and envision things that others can’t see.

When faced with business decisions, most of us gather as much data as possible and then make our best decisions based on what the data tells us. However, the “CEO of the decade” — Steve Jobs of Apple — doesn’t rely on customer surveys or market data to decide which new products will amaze and delight their customers. He seems to know what we’ll want before we even want it.

A great CEO is like a chess master who is always thinking several moves ahead of both their organization and their competition. They can feel when the time is right to switch gears. Great CEOs know when their organization must go through major change and transform itself into a different kind of organization to compete successfully in the future. They also know when it’s time to make sense of all of the changes and refocus on execution and growth. It’s been said that Jack Welch, arguably the best CEO of the 20th century, only attempted three company-wide strategic initiatives during his 20-year tenure as the CEO of General Electric.

So how can we mere mortals improve our abilities to see those things that others cannot see?

First, we can identify and challenge all assumptions on a regular basis. What once may have been true will almost always change with time — we just don’t know when. Test the absolute extreme ideas for every strategic decision by asking “what if?” For example:

* What if you gave away your products or services for free and earned revenue in other ways or you decided to raise prices significantly?

* What if you asked your customers to “self-service” or you provided the service way beyond anything anyone else has ever considered?

* What if you simplified or unbundled your products/services to bare bones or you developed an absolutely full solution with complementary products and services?

* What if you focused on only a core segment of customers or you diversified your offerings to try to reach every segment of the market?

* What if you reengineered your entire distribution supply chain from scratch?

* What if you were the dominant player in your industry? What would you do differently?

* What if you were a new entrant in your industry and had the freedom to do everything again for the first time? What could you do that would disrupt the entrenched competitors?

In his best-selling book, “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell says that “great decision-makers aren’t those who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of ‘thin-slicing’ — filtering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables.”

Great CEOs look for what’s not there. They don’t feel constrained by historical methods for addressing their most strategic issues and are capable of re-framing most issues in new ways. By challenging our current ways of thinking and examining real-world opportunities and challenges with fresh approaches, we may not actually develop the ability to see around corners, but we will improve our intuition, which is critical in turning a good CEO into a visionary leader.

Paul Witkay is the founder and CEO of the Alliance of Chief Executives. Based in Northern California, the Alliance of CEOs is the most strategically valuable and innovative organization for CEOs in the world. Witkay can be contacted at