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You are not a CEO. You are a builder of cathedrals

People walk past the entrance to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
Reuters/Charles Platiau
You’re a builder of men, women, and a shared idea.
  • Yuchun Lee
By Yuchun Lee

CEO, Clarabridge

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris is, fundamentally, a very complicated stack of bricks, wood, and glass. That does not mean that a single mason laying bricks can build a Notre Dame. He would need a blueprint to see and understand the larger design and to know when his work would have to be coordinated with the carpenters and glassblowers. The architect who drew the blueprint knows it better than anyone else, and it is his job to convey the intricacies of his plan to each builder.

The task of a modern CEO is similar—but more difficult. You hold the blueprint and are responsible for driving the company forward. But on top of that, and even more importantly, you are responsible for making sure that your employees have the motivation and the drive to make your company excel.

I’ve built and led several successful companies, each with its own unique vision and blueprint. In each case, I have made sure that the entire team knows they are not just laying bricks or hammering in nails: they are building a cathedral. Providing this perspective about the bigger picture to all employees at all levels of the business has been one of the greatest motivational tools in my career as CEO.

It is difficult to motivate every employee no matter how big or small your company may be, but it is essential. There is a glut of modern business advice out there, but these are some simple, specific lessons to bear in mind as you work to build a truly extraordinary company.

Silos aren’t all bad

In recent years, there has been a lot of buzz around the importance of tearing down silos. While you want your company to operate smoothly, with each department collaborating and working toward the same blueprint, I’ve found that, regardless of organizational structure, it’s critical to ensure that every employee understands the big picture, and all teams are aligned toward the same over-arching goals.

Your mason doesn’t need to have a hand in the plumbing, nor does your plumber need to help pick out the wallpaper. As long as all departments understand their role in achieving the company’s objectives, there’s no immediate need to overhaul departments and tear down silos. Of course, depending on the situation, re-organization is sometimes necessary, but the first step should be to ensure alignment of objectives and priorities. If you’re successful with this, it’s likely it is that silos will fall down naturally over time.

The truth will set you (and your employees) free

For every Notre Dame there is a Sagrada Família, projects of impressive scope that lay unfinished or abandoned. Failure is a natural and important part of the process. It provides the feedback that allows you and your company to adjust the blueprint as you go. Coming clean about those failures is hard, but there is simply no alternative. It is just as important to announce setbacks as it is to celebrate victories. You must be honest and open with your employees, at all levels.

During difficult times, it’s critical not to gloss over the truth. Complete transparency is best, because it’s the only way to build trust. Do not deliver bad news without having an action plan for the future. Communicating this action plan with confidence and specificity will go a long way in motivating teams. If part of the cathedral isn’t structurally sound, for example, then make the announcement, and talk about how each team can contribute, even if it’s outside of their core responsibilities. Show your employees that you respect them by being open, and they in turn will respect you and your leadership.  

Blueprints should be alive

If your employees know the blueprint, understand how their work fits into that plan, and can clearly envision the cathedral they are building—you’re halfway there. The best business leaders go beyond the blueprint. The ultimate triumph of a CEO is to motivate and inspire by painting a compelling picture that brings the blueprint to life. What will the Cathedral be used for? Who will use it? Will it inspire other builders to construct their own wonders?

By helping your team understand all the dimensions, you’re providing a larger vision and purpose for their work. You should be communicating the big picture to employees regularly. In my early days as a a CEO, I quickly tired of hearing myself repeat the same things over and over. But I now realize that, for many employees, it wasn’t repetitive—it was a regular reminder of why their job is meaningful and how they were making a difference. This big-picture message breeds a sense of shared goals and fosters teamwork. The larger and more complex the company, the more often you’ll need to repeat its blueprint. Don’t be afraid of repeating yourself.

A good CEO can grow a business or turn a profit. A great CEO can do all that while inspiring each employee to reach their full potential by helping them realize they are building a beautiful cathedral that will stand the test of time, not just laying bricks. And in that difference lies the potential to create companies that are truly modern wonders.

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