Three Mistakes CEOs Make

In a recent study by Keas, an employee health and wellness company based in San Francisco USA, where they interviewed over 100 HR professionals on various topics, one of the questions they asked was:  “In your experience, what are the top three Human Resource mistakes that every CEO makes?”  The response:

  • 64% – CEOs don’t recognise what truly motivates employees
  • 41% – CEOs fail to lead by example in key HR initiatives
  • 32% – CEOs don’t make company culture a priority

Erika Andersen, author and founder of Proteus International, in her analysis of this data raises an interesting and fairly “brutal” point: “…all three of these actions (or non-actions) send a loud, clear message to employees:  you are not that important to me.”

Could it be true that CEOs and other top executives are so focused on other things, or themselves, that they really do not care about their employees?  I find this difficult to understand, but certainly not hard to believe.

It isn’t hard to believe because we seem to live in a world where marketers bombard us with messages that tell us that we must concern ourselves with fulfilling our desires, we must put our needs first, and make sure we look, act and drive something better than everyone else.

It is hard to understand because as in an article I wrote some time back comparing an organisation to a sports car, the individuals that ultimately create the movement in an organisation – its wheels – are its employees.  And any CEO, self serving or otherwise, would be very foolish to ignore the state and condition of this area of their organisation.

But sometimes these mistakes are exactly that – mistakes.  Some are made in ignorance, and some are made foolishly.

Either way, I feel it is worth considering some things we can and should be doing ourselves to ensure we don’t make similar slip-ups.

Let’s begin with motivation.

So what really motivates employees?

Dan Pink, author and former Chief Speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore, in a talk entitled The Puzzle of Motivation which he presented in July 2009 to a TEDGlobal audience; he explores how “traditional rewards are not always as effective as we think”.  He states that it is a fact that social scientists know more about what motivates someone than leaders and managers do.

How is he able to make such a statement?  Because the data says this is true.  We use analysed data and information to make all sorts of different decisions – from what to invest where and when, to whether or not we should be taking an umbrella to work with us today.  The science of data analysis can be found in every industry and profession.  Yet, when it comes to leadership and people motivation, on a global scale, we are not responding to what the data is telling us.

Pink shares various studies that all come to this unanimous conclusion:  employees, and certainly those of the rising generation, are not motivated by money alone.

The findings of these reveal that the promise of more money doesn’t always entice increased performance.  In fact, the studies reveal that with the complex and more creative style of 21st century jobs, traditional rewards can actually lead to lower levels of performance.

Is it hard to believe?  Yes it is.  And because it is hard to believe, we seem to have chosen not to believe it and follow a line of thinking that is counter performance enhancement.

Can you accept that the carrot and stick leadership we have believed to have worked for so long has become redundant and antiquated?

So what is the data revealing regarding how to motivate others?

Pink goes on to share that there are just three things we need to now understand about the needs and desires of our employees in order to lift them and their performance:

  1. People want to be able to direct their own lives and time.  People want AUTONOMY.
  2. People want to be able to get better and better at something.  They want to enjoy the MASTERY of a particular discipline or within a particular field.
  3. People want to do what they do in the service of something larger than themselves.  They want PURPOSE.

Pink states: “…these are the building blocks for an entirely new operating system for our businesses.”  He shares that where these elements are in place, performance increases dramatically and the need for constant monitoring and management decreases.  And the data supports what he is sharing.

Leading by Example

How often in your careers have you seen managers and leaders above you say one thing and do another?  How does this affect your actions?

In order to be a leader, we need followers.  And in order to be followed, we need to be trusted and respected.  This requires a consistency in what we say and what we do.

Here at Leadership Platform we have the view that the CEO is the custodian of leadership in his or her organisation.   What we mean by this is that all leadership behaviour and all initiatives that involve or impact the organisation can and must be traced back to his or her office.  If a more junior leader is behaving in a certain way, it is a direct reflection of the leadership of the CEO and his or her direct reports.  When considered this way, we begin to expand our view of the impact of our leadership.

Synonyms of custodian include:  keeper, curator, warden, and guardian.  And so when it comes to these key HR initiatives that are implemented, we strongly suggest that you the CEO become its guardian and keeper.

Company Culture a Priority

What is company culture and what impact does it have?

By definition, a company culture is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterise an institution or organisation.”  As a transitive verb, to culture is to “cultivate”.

In a lab, very specific conditions are created for the growth of very specific bacteria.  Drawing a parallel with this analogy, what specific “attitudes, values, goals and practices” do you as the CEO or leader want to see within your organisation or team?  Based in and upon this answer, you can now determine what specific conditions are needed to “cultivate” these.

If this practice of cultivating these behaviours is not high up on your list of priorities, we suggest you make it so as soon as possible.

When all is said and done, CEOs and executives are human beings that do make mistakes.  However, as pointed out in a recent interview with Wayne Samson, CEO of Ellies Holdings Ltd., theirs is the burden and weight of these mistakes impacting on potentially thousands of people and their families.

These are three mistakes considered to be made most often.  Let us address them, and in so doing show our people that we do in fact care, and move our organisations and teams forward and upward.

This article appeared in the:





Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

Follow Us

Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


By subscribing you will be updated with the latest insights and news from us. We never spam.