Pulling the Owner/CEO Card

posted by Andrew Cull

Pulling the Owner or CEO card is when you force decision or action without consensus "because you're the owner." Don't do it.

I started my first real company in my early twenties. By age 24, I was running a company with over a million dollars of revenue and a dozen employees. Fifteen years later, I reflect often on the mistakes I made early on. Pulling the “owner card” is the worst leadership mistake I’ve ever made. The older I get and the more time I spend with our clients, the more damage I see from this common practice.

What is the Owner Card?

As a business owner, you are the top boss. Everyone works for your organization, which is ultimately you. Pulling the owner card is using brute force to get something done. It’s saying, “because I’m the owner of the company” to force compliance from your staff.

An Example of Failed Leadership

I remember the first time I did it. I was feeling frustrated in a conversation about cash flow. My employee’s responsibility was to manage cash and she disagreed with me about allocating an insignificant payment. In frustration I pulled my card, “well I own the company, so that’s what we are going to do.”

I didn’t think much of it at the time, we moved on through the chaos of rapid growth. Several weeks later, a respected mentor found out about it and we sat down to discuss. As a young business leader, I felt bad but didn’t realize the impact of what I had done. He explained as the owner or CEO, that ace always sits in your back pocket. If you ever had to use it, you failed. I’ve done it twice in my career, and in both cases I was wrong and deeply regret it.

Why is it a failure?

As a manager or leader, you are accountable for building up your team. You have to provide them with the right resources and knowledge to do their job and make decisions. If you’ve done your job of hiring and mentoring, assume your employee has good judgment from their perspective. They must have the freedom, information, and power to make the right decisions. When you overpower that decision, you’ve failed to influence them with your vision. Perhaps you’ve failed to provide them with the right information or resources to make the right decision. Now, with your owner card, you’ve usurped their judgment, without question.

You’ve also usurped your employee’s authority. There is no greater damage to moral than the authoritarian move of forcing your will. If you’ve bypassed your own organization chart or reporting line, you’ve doubled the damage.

How this manifests in organizations?

Each culture is unique. In some of our projects we interview employees to gather information for strategic planning or executive feedback. When someone is using their owner card, it is often the first issue employees bring up. When it is an executive, especially the CEO or owner, they report a fear of making decisions and wait for direction. They aren’t empowered to manage or lead. It has been robbed from them. Employees burn out. They perpetuate the culture of management by force and no one is excited to come to work each day.

On the flip side, as the CEO, you’ll lose the critical perspective you should have in your team. The organization can’t grow without it.

How do you recover?

First, you should apologize. You made a mistake and if you want to earn the respect of your staff, apologize. Next, find the root cause. What created the situation? What information did they not receive from you? What authority did you take away and how can you restore it? Did they have information you didn’t? What was the right decision? It’s time to have a candid discussion to understand how you can enable him/her to work with you as a team.

The key here is perceptivity. You have to listen to understand where your employee is coming from. They also deserve to understand your perspective. That’s the art of leadership and it’s not easy.

License to Lead

I practiced martial arts for several years. I also had the unfortunate opportunity to use those skills in real life. Like the CEO card, the most powerful aspect is not using that power at all. It’s a license to de-escalate situations with confidence. At the end of the day, that is your ultimate power as CEO. Use that power to develop a high-performance team. They’ll drive your company forward.