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You are the CYO

Robbert van Alen
August 28, 2019

Simon Sinek created a lot of attention for the Why with his book ‘Start with Why’ (2009), but how solidly are today’s organizations being led towards their raison d’être, their purpose, their Why?

Most organizations are being led by one or more CxOs: e.g. CEO, COO, CFO, CIO. But I have never encountered an organization with a CYO – the Chief Why Officer. The CYO would be responsible for the Why of the organization; its fulfillment and – at times – its adaption to change.

Having twenty-five years of experience with realizing change in a broad range of organizations, I know that change is the one thing that continuously binds aspects like execution, finance, operations and IT with each other and with the Why. When change is being realized many decisions need to be made, and input to these decisions is always this operational assessment: Is what we do today, and how we do it, what is needed to fulfil the organization’s Why tomorrow?

Typically, organizations are decomposed into departments and teams which, interrelated, fulfil the organization’s Why. Every CxO, department and team can commission changes. And every change, regardless size, complexity and organizational scope, pursues to retain or improve the fulfillment of that Why.

Getting back to the CYO, you might ask: “In case the CEO isn’t focused on the Why, then certainly the CxO team as a whole are focused on it, aren’t they?”

Yes and no. Yes, the CEO and other CxO team members will undoubtedly confirm that they lead the organization towards the Why. However, the question is how effective they can be in doing so? Can they be more effective at it then you? No, I don’t think so. While doing your job for the organization, I expect you to be a more effective CYO than any of the CxO team members. That is, if you take on the CYO role together with all your co-workers. And if you do, then that is real collective leadership.

Based on personal experience I have two arguments for this thesis.

Firstly, the span of control of any CxO. They cannot be everywhere in the organization to experience how things are going, while you and your co-workers have experiences and make decisions every day everywhere. You and your co-workers outnumber any CxO team by far.

Secondly, the limitations of communication. Usually, you and your co-workers don’t have a frequent opportunity to brief the CxO team directly about you experiences and developing insights. Hence, they are in the dark about many things. And for reasons that differ from person to person, from organization to organization, and from culture to culture, experiences and views are being shared in a filtered way when employees meet CxO’s.

Of course, the CxO team is not in the dark about everything. They actively aspire a sustainable Why for the organization, and for this they use inputs from advisors, performance monitoring, their own observations by engaging with clients, employees and partners, their wits and gut feelings, and more. For the above-mentioned reasons, their top-down aspirations shall not fully mingle with the bottom-up expectations of you and your co-workers. If this mingling would take place, it would result into a joint and effectuated vision and mission that allows everyone to act as one. Brafman and Beckstrom described this narratively in their book, and recommended read, ‘Starfish and the Spider’ (2006).

By having a job within your organization, you are a key stakeholder. You may want to continue in that job or use it to move towards a different position that matches your competences and ambitions. Thus, you help the organization to thrive and you maintain doing satisfactory work. This mingle of the organization’s Why and the personal Why goes for you, your co-workers and every CxO. It gives everyone the same objective. Hence, you – like everyone else in the organization – are the CYO.

On the shoulders of the CYO rests the responsibility to continuously understand, adapt (e.g. via innovation) and pursue the organization’s purpose. In the spirit of John F. Kennedy inaugural address – “Ask not what your country can do, ask what you can do for your country.” – ask what you can do for your organization to fulfil her Why. And discuss this actively with your co-workers, including the CxO’s. Most likely, the CxO’s will appreciate such engagement.

Now, your first assignment as a CYO is to fully understand the Why of your organization, so you can act on it. EnjoY!

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About the author

Program Director | Netherlands
Robbert van Alen is both a seeker of value and a maker of value. Seeking value is what he does as advisor of senior management on topics like using value to prioritize the change initiatives for their organization and selecting the way of change delivery that is most suitable and feasible. The making of value he facilitates in roles like project manager, program manager and interim manager.


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