A CEO’s Biggest Challenge

The list of challenges that a CEO must address as they head into 2022 is steadily growing. It spans climate change, equality, workforce, supply chain, AI and many other urgent items, including increasing profit. And as this list begins to overwhelm anyone within its reach, it is easy to forget the most critical challenge of all. And that is improving participation and contribution, which will solve all these challenges.


Active Knowledge Question:

What is on your must-address list for 2022 and the few years thereafter?


The Noise

As the demands for a CEO’s attention escalate with more and more agenda items placed on their must-do list, the clarity they can bring to decision-making can quickly diminish.

Of course, the CEO has their leadership team tasked with addressing various agenda items, but that team needs to be able to act as one to support the CEO effectively. And often, the different agenda items end up competing against each other, creating division, not unity.

In today’s mix, many agenda items are not internally generated by the business or its customers but rather through advocacy, where calls are made on the Board and CEO to respond to social issues that various interest groups champion.

The messaging landing on a CEO’s desk can readily quieten many important signals that cannot be heard over all the loud voices. The risk is that while the CEO is listening to all the voices outside the business, they cannot hear and cannot search for the voices inside their business. And the challenge for the CEO is to lift these voices up, so they are not lost.

The most important voice is that of participation and contribution. The competitive strength of any business lies in the combined talent and effort that can be mustered from every single person who works within and with a business.

What do participation and contribution look like? Here are some of its traits – lead, support, enable, encourage, innovate, cooperate, create, ask, imagine, champion, challenge, question and deliver. And these traits are present and active at all levels of the business.

The Most Important Voice

No matter what business you may be in, nor what technology or assets you may have within your domain, your business will go nowhere without people. We used to call these people ‘employees’ whom all worked under one roof, but those days are gone. The people who allow your business to do what it does are a diverse team engaged on various contractual basis, working in many different locations, ways and levels. But unifying them as a single community is vital to the enduring success of a business.

Being able to muster the potential talent and effort that resides in this diverse community is what I describe as the ‘voice of participation and contribution’. A quiet voice is one where little attention is paid to this potential, and it is dispersed with no real pattern. A strong voice is where every effort is made to bring this potential to the forefront and focus it.

Who speaks for participation and contribution in your business? If you could measure the potential that exists in your business, what percentage of it do you think is currently being applied? Anything over 20% is probably unrealistic if we are to be honest. Bear in mind, I am not talking about a select few people in the business but rather every single person.

Why do I believe that the application of potential is so low? Because we do not design nor run our businesses to draw potential to the forefront, focus and apply it. We run our businesses to suppress it and direct the majority of our people to do what we tell them to do. We instruct and contain. We do not draw forth and engage. Command and control is the typical model of business management using a hierarchical structure to regulate what everyone does.

But if we could increase that participation and contribution, we would find that all the challenges on our must-do list would be solved quickly and efficiently.

Opening The Door

In leadership, we can spend so much of our time looking at everything that is happening outside our business we simply don’t have time to pause, listen and look inside. It’s only when someone complains or something blows up that we are called to deal with the issue.

But the door to participation and contribution can and should be opened simply by focusing on the elements of the competitive engine in your business.

The elements of the competitive engine that underpin and will increase participation and contribution are:

  1. Worthy Leadershipleaders who encourage and enable others to deliver their potential and leave self-interest out of leadership.
  2. Purposehaving a purpose for the business’s existence that seeds increasing customer value and in which everyone may take a pride. Note, it is not more profit, as profit is only an outcome, not a catalyst. The compelling motive in the business must be to compete to deliver a greater customer value.
  3. Visionestablishing a vision for the business that represents a quest that others will want to join in and contribute to.
  4. Culturea culture that supports, encourages, recognises and celebrates the individual who has made a contribution to the success of the business.
  5. BarriersAn entrenched habit of searching out and removing all barriers that block potentialoften found in the form of paradigms, bureaucracy and self-interest.
  6. Rewardsa reward program that is designed to uplift the motive to compete, available to all equally and which promotes belonging, contribution, achievement, growth and self-worth.

All of these elements draw every single person into your business in a way that will entice and enable them to give their all to the business. Do this, focus on this, and all other challenges will disappear. Why? Because you will have created a business that is competitively fit and tactically alive. A business that can move, adapt, shift, outpace and outperform its competitors. Your markets and customers will evolve and change, but the competitive engine in your business will ensure your business predicts, adapts and continues to grow.


In leadership, we can readily become distracted and overwhelmed by everything that is happening around us and the demands for attention that land on our desk every day. But if we focus on ensuring the potential that resides in the people in our business is released and applied, there will be no challenge too great.

An entirely new level of performance.

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All the best in the success of your business,

Richard Shrapnel