Four Priorities Keeping CEOs Up at Night

I had the sincere pleasure this past week of attending the CEO Connection Spring Forum, Dinner and CEO Boot Camp in New York City.

Highlights from the Forum and Dinner included a round table discussion led by Matthew Bishop, the NY Bureau Chief for The Economist, entitled, “The Road from Ruin: How to Succeed in Today’s Economic Environment,” and a presentation by Ray McDaniel, Chairman and CEO of Moody’s Corporation on what he wish he’d known when he became CEO.

Although these events were exceptional, the real meat of the CEO Connection experience comes during the CEO Boot Camps that are held five times a year and take place the day following the Forum and Dinner.  At the Boot Camp, an intimate group of CEOs “lay everything on the table.” They discuss their biggest challenges and then share experiences and advice that enable each of them to leave with powerful insights and strategies for addressing these challenges.

What’s On a CEO’s Mind Today?

There were four areas of discussion that were, in my own view, the issues that appeared most pressing, and that they said “kept them up at night:”

1. Clarity of Vision and Values

Members of the CEO Connection are, perhaps, an enlightened group.  I say this because so much media attention these days is focused on leaders who don’t set high standards for their own behavior and who take a “me-centric” view of their roles and their companies.

It’s the exact opposite for members in this organization.  There was a tremendous amount of discussion about the importance of leading with values and setting an example through the way they live their lives and lead their teams.

Specific insights included:

  • The imperative of a very clear vision
  • How challenging it can be to capture hearts & minds with a vision
  • Not using debt for what you simply can’t afford
  • The critical nature of education, beginning with parent engagement
  • that action, not anger, solves problems
  • The crucial importance of speaking truth to power

2. Talent Management

More than ever, CEOs realize how critical it is for them to be directly involved in talent management.  At one point a member suggested that part of their role should specifically be designated, “Chief of Talent.”

This is because CEOs set the bar, standard and example for recruitment, retention, reward, motivation and development.  If they make talent management a clear priority then the entire organization makes it a priority.

As a result, there is a relentless effort to have the absolute best team and to ensure that people are in roles that are the ideal fit, and that align with the organization’s vision and strategies.

Additional key insights:

  • Values are critical in talent management; when you fire a high-performer who mistreats others you send a clear message about the values to which you are committed
  • Relationships have become a key differentiator in this economy; you must rely on your people to excel at creating and nurturing these relationships
  • Innovation comes from having the right team and then motivating and rewarding them for new ideas and bold initiatives
  • Some people are simply individual players who become high performers when you take away their responsibility of managing others

3. Communication

We spent a lot of time talking about communication.  What’s fascinating to me is that so many of our members felt that they were diligent about communication, but that the statistics show otherwise.

When surveyed, only 5% of employees of major companies – 5%! – said they knew what the company’s overriding strategy was.

Important insights included:

  • CEOs must communicate downward throughout the entire organization, not just to the leadership team
  • A clear understanding of the company’s vision, objectives and strategies must make its way through the entire organization
  • It’s imperative that each employee understands how their role fits within the larger organization and how it aligns with the company’s vision and strategies.  This is the only way they can “own it.”
  • Employees want, and need, clear priorities
  • Everything you do – consciously and unintentionally – communicates when you’re the leader

4. Board and Leadership Team Management

Two of the most important responsibilities a CEO has are to manage his/her Leadership Team and Board of Directors.  In both cases, CEOs should be actively involved in vetting and selecting these key people.

What CEOs want most from their Boards:

  • Active interest, insights, oversight and advice
  • Hands off the day to day running of the company

What CEOs want most from their Leadership Teams:

  • Intellectual integrity
  • Healthy debate
  • Commitment and loyalty to the final decision made after a healthy debate
  • Commitment to the team and company’s success

Are these priorities keeping you up at night as well?  Please share your experiences in the comments…I learn so much from you!


Please join my Leadership Chat co-host Steve Woodruff and me as we discuss, “What’s keeping leaders up at night” in Leadership Chat this Tuesday, May 24th at 8:00 pm Eastern Time.  Don’t miss out!

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Thank you for reading and for being part of this community – it means so much to me.

You can find me on Twitter at @LisaPetrilli and on LinkedIn. To hire me for Visionary Leadership programs, Magnetic Marketing Consulting or for the Social Media Concierge program, email me at [email protected].

Photo is Sleepless in Seattle by LisbethSalander.


  1. Does it count if we read this post at 6:30 am instead of 2:28, as indicated above? :>} Great summary, Lisa – very thought-provoking!
    Steve Woodruff´s last blog post ..Touches and Tribes

  2. Steve G says:

    Lisa –

    Excellent Post – your highlights and points are right on (but you already knew that!) Every Bullet Point had great “takeaways” but what spoke to me the most was clear communication and a clear vision…As leaders, we need to not only help create the “path” but just as important, clearly and concisely communicate how to get there and the benefits of taking the journey.

    Again, your post was extremely, extremely good –

    As always Lisa, THANK YOU, for sharing your insight, experience and leadership – always inspired!


    • Thank you, Steve – I appreciate the feedback on the takeaways. You’re so right about vision, and it can be difficult for some leaders to master. Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know your thoughts – I always appreciate it!

  3. So apparently Lisa you creep into my house at night and figure out some of the things that cause me to be an insomniac! All points on. I had no idea that the same things kept other leaders up also, so it was terrific to read. There are a few more than four, as the nights are long…but all of these are on the top of the list.

    Thank you for your insight and leadership as always.


    • Yes, Gail, I’m like a Ninja…you never know I’m there! ;)

      Thanks so much for the feedback, and looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the other items tomorrow night at #LeadershipChat!

  4. Lisa, thanks for the recap; it is validating to know that the very issues I see are being put on the table. They are a call for education at the C-level.

    In my experience, the culture, values and vision seem too esoteric (and soft) during ramp-up and get pushed aside. Our job is to make the business case for why they are every bit as crucial as the numbers.

    Ninja? Your’e the biggest, best, brightest Ninja ever!

    Best to you,

    • You’re welcome, Jeanne – I’m glad to know it’s helpful in that way. I couldn’t agree with you more – especially at the beginning, setting vision and values is critical! Not sure about biggest ninja…but thank you! ;)

  5. Lisa,

    I’m a bit late to this post, sorry. What an interesting session it must have been with the CEOs in attendance.

    I’m always intrigued when CEOs note talent management as a critical concern. I wonder how many are aware of their companies’ recruitment and retention policies and procedures. When my clients visit corporate websites that note that unsolicited resumes/applications will not be considered, one has to wonder about those companies’ commitments to acquiring good talent.

    Talent is, arguably, directly tied to innovation, which, in turn, is tied to competitiveness. It seems to me that if CEOs are as concerned about talent management as they profess to be, they need to know that their HR departments don’t seem to be as invested.

    I’ve yet to see a CEO take a real interest in determining if their HR policies/procedures actually help or hinder in acquiring good talent.

    Scott Woodard´s last blog post ..Work Sucks!

  6. Great! I have always been a big advocate on “The imperative of a very clear vision”. When I used to work for Outback Steakhouse in early 2000 they had a clear vision and mission. It boosted moral and created a consistent, pleasant work environment.
    Glen Zangirolami´s last blog post ..Import MySQL database with progress bar in shell script

    • Then we are two peas in a pod! Thanks for letting me know about the company – what a great example you had to learn from. All the best and thank you so much for sharing your experience here.

  7. Lisa –

    I just came across this article but what amazing data you have. Setting up a consistent and reliable communication platform is one of the top responsibilities of a CEO, and anytime there’s a breakdown in alignment or “employee engagement” all you need to do is look up! These issues fall at the CEO’s lap.

    Question for you: how have you seen CEOs effectively solving this problem? Any technology or process working particularly well?


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