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Why Leaders Need an ‘XO’


If you’ve served in the military, you know that an ‘XO’ is an executive officer.  The XO is the second-in-command and reports to the commanding officer (CO).  The XO is typically responsible for the management of day-to-day activities, freeing up the unit commander so they can concentrate on strategic planning and execution. The XO also takes charge in the absence of the CO.

But what makes their role unique?  An XO is the commanding officer’s extra ears and eyes.  The XO proactively works in the organization’s “white space” gathering data from the other officers and troops.  Then the XO provides important intelligence to the commander about stress-producing situations, poor morale, or impending problems that the commander needs to address.  For example, if an officer is abusing his troops but no one feels safe enough to report it, the XO can sniff it out and inform the commander, who then takes appropriate action with the detrimental officer.

What relevance does the XO function have in business?  Just like on a military base or ship, the top leader cannot be everywhere or see everything.  They also need an XO they can rely on.  In business, the XO role is informal and is often a VP who has the trust and respect of the CEO and his peers.

I recently observed a situation where a CEO was at risk of losing his CFO, although she did not know it.  She was unaware that the CFO was being courted by their largest competitor.  To make matters worse, the CEO had not been giving her CFO much attention lately, which made the finance executive feel unappreciated and more open than normal to the competition’s enticements.  When the XO (in this case, the VP of operations) detected that the CFO was a flight risk, he sounded the alarm bell and strategized options with the CEO.  The CEO then stepped in to rebuild her relationship with the CFO and offered him a counter proposal that kept him with the company.  A significantly negative resignation was averted–thanks to the XO’s acute attention.

If you do not have a trusted and savvy XO working in your organization’s white space, consider identifying one and putting them in motion.  Identify the senior manager who has the experience, skill and finesse to serve in this capacity and formalize the arrangement with the XO and the CEO.

Tell us about one of your ‘XO’ stories!

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  • About The Author

    Kelly Ferguson

    Kelly has spent 25 years as an entrepreneur, sales and marketing leader, OD manager, senior OD consultant, program manager, leadership coach, process improvement facilitator, and strategic planner. In addition, she specializes in the development of visual management tools, systems and implementation. She has over 15 years in relationship-based sales (services and products) successfully closing and implementing large-scale projects at companies including Microsoft, Nike, Starbucks Coffee Co., Nordstrom, Standard Financial Group, Coinstar and REI. Kelly is known for her ability to combine solutions based on process, people, structure and systems. Her “OD approach” drives business results, employee engagement and ultimately a high-quality customer experience. As a leader, Kelly is recognized for her drive to grow companies from start-ups to large enterprises by focusing on top-line growth, the introduction of innovative products and services, sales and marketing, and ...Read Full

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