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Actionable Insights

CEO Dashboard & KPI Selection [7 Critical Questions]

Nov 10, 2017 5:13:11 PM / by Adam Nathan

CEO Dashboards Fail. And Often. 

Probably too often. 

They fail because they don’t generate new, actionable insights. They fail because they are hard to use, ugly to look at, slow to load, and because the metrics are flat out wrong. But more troubling, they often fail because the CEO isn't strategically prepared to leverage one.

Here's the bottom line: dashboard KPIs are your leadership story quantified. For a CEO's KPIs to be effective, they need to be your organization's vital signs. They need to represent the shared understanding of "what matters" that you have already created within the culture of your business.

The following seven questions test how successful you have been in building, evangelizing, and creating alignment on your vision. Your answers to these questions will be strong leading indicators of whether your KPI and CEO dashboard will help drive your organization.

 #1 Strategic Consistency: Is your strategic focus stable or evolving?

Your executive dashboard should quantify specific and stable strategic priorities. It should crisply count results from the areas where you have already focused your entire organization. It should reflect what you care about and, by extension, what you don’t care about. Only when your strategic concerns are settled questions, can a chief executive's dashboard provide a powerful framework for actionable insights and conversations with leadership.

As CEO, you don’t need to know how these strategic concerns will be addressed eventually, but you do need to define the battlefield for your team. If you haven't locked in these key performance questions (KPQ), it’s likely you’ll quickly end up with a CEO dashboard that you either don’t use - or is of little use. You might end up wasting time, money and political capital.

So, here are some questions for sober reflection:

Is your vision stable or does it informally move on you each time you articulate it? Do you consistently reference the same strategic concerns to your board, investors, leadership and rank-and-file? And if you only had, for example, 7 key metrics to monitor your organization, would they be the same metrics you cared about a year ago? Three months ago? Last week?

If your vision is stable, then you are ready to lock in these key performance questions with strategic KPIs on a CEO dashboard.


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#2 Strategic Reach: Could your office receptionist explain what really matters to your organization?

Your chances of generating new actions, innovative ideas, and system changes increase dramatically when everybody - no, really, everybody - is aligned on what matters.

A KPI is your business strategy quantified. It is a numeric expression of the vitals in your business model. Everyone in your organization, in some way, is a part of the value and/or the cost implicit in your business model. So everyone in the organization has to be accountable - and acutely aware of - the parts of the business model they individually impact.

Obviously as CEO, you own the task of communicating your business to the business. You need to do this repeatedly and with clarity at all levels of the organization. It's quite a lift, but when you have, there's a reward. You both get the best from your team - and you can hold your people accountable to your vision. If you haven’t locked in your vision, and leaders start pulling in different directions from what you care about, the ownership is in your court. 

But back to your office receptionist:

Depending on your business model, every receptionist's job actually varies. They literally are supporting different KPIs. In one business model, the receptionist might protect the time and expense of key resources. In another he or she might work towards driving customer satisfaction. In a third they support a brand's image as the primary task. It all depends on your business model and strategy. 

Only when every employee understands where they individually fit into your key performance indicators, can they take action to contribute to them. This clarity brings insight into how to impact that goal from their unique vantage point. When they know what you're trying to do, they can find solutions that nobody else ever would. It's powerful, and they are connected to your big picture.


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#3 Strategic Narrative: Without preparation can you explain your business model and your top KPIs on a whiteboard?

Communicating your business model, the value it generates, and the dominant constraints that impact your success is the most fundamental task you have as CEO. It is also one of the easiest to neglect in the tactical hurly-burly of every day.

Too often an organizational vision is presented with the crutch of a presentation deck. It takes 60 slides, an hour, and a pitcher of black coffee. Maybe there's a broad vision for the senior leadership and a skinny vision for the troops. There is a third vision for the board of directors. None of it is memorized or instinctive, and the framework for explaining it varies with the telling, the audience, and the season.

The actor is reading his lines from a script that he hasn't committed to memory.

In the same way that having a go-to elevator pitch is key for a salesperson, having a crisp, memorized explanation of your business model, the value you deliver, and the challenges you face is a communication worth committing to memory. The whiteboard story is your CEO dog-and-pony show.

Your dashboard becomes your dog-and-pony show quantified.

Once you can go into a room, grab a marker, and explain what you’re up to on a whiteboard, you bring a command and clarity of message that elicits respect and creates understanding. When you can further incorporate the data rationale for your KPIs, then you’re serving your team with a vision that can be both described and measured. 

You are your organization’s storyteller-in-chief. The whiteboard is your campfire.

#4 Strategic Framework: Do you have a go-to framework to communicate your business model?

There is enormous power in having a consistent, agreed-upon model to establish and reinforce key ideas. Gartner’s Magic Quadrant is instantly recognizable for value. A Kanban board is a shared framework for understanding schedule and status. As are Gantt charts and swim lane diagrams. Once a framework language is established in an organization, there is a foundational tool in place to communicate.

How does this relate to your role as CEO?

One of the opportunities - maybe even responsibility - that you have as a CEO is to create this shared language and framework for your organization. You alone have the ability to create the visual representation for communicating the organizational strategy, value, and cost structure. You are a storyteller about what matters - but you are also a teacher.

If you can consistently describe the business in a model that your “students” can recognize and learn, they will be able to represent and teach it to others, hopefully using the very framework you shared with them. Your ability to solve the problem of message structure will empower others to communicate your vision, your way.


Does your team know your business model “pitch?” Could they do a humorous impression of how you communicate and sell your vision? Is it that memorable? Is your conceptual framework in their bones? Could they model it in their own teams?

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#5 Strategic Prioritization: Can you defend - and rank - the top 5 strategic priorities for your business?

If you can, you quash non-aligned objectives before they suck up your organization’s energy and most strategic resources. If you can, you have a non-political - and non-threatening - tool to re-align leaders when they are off strategy.

If you can’t...

... then it is likely you will generate competing and misaligned priorities within your leadership team. In the absence of strategic guidance, other strategies will naturally emerge that focus on individual departmental silos rather than the business as a whole. As CEO, you are the sole representative of the entire business. You need to establish what matters before others fill the vacuum.

Ultimately, your CEO dashboard KPIs will frame this up - but only when you have already defined and clarified your strategic priorities.

#6 Strategic Listening: Are the values, challenges and opportunities in your strategy believable to those involved?

Organizations deliver value to customers, employees, partners and vendors. Critically, they also have friction points with each group - and within the systems that serve these groups.

The trade-offs of value and friction shape the entire viability of your business model. As value propositions change and frictions are diminished, new values and frictions emerge. Business models evolve over time to reflect these changes. And the disruptions we're now seeing with AI and customer experience (CX) threaten to disrupt them even more.

Your business model doesn’t need to be unique, but it does need to be accurate. It needs to truly explain your value and friction points. "Something must be working right, because we cash checks" isn't a sustainable strategic position, but it's frighteningly common.

If you think you’re in a low-cost model, but your clients think they are in a high-touch customer relationship, there’s a critical disconnect. If your employees joined your company to be on the cutting edge of technology, but job security and competitive pay is your message to them, there’s another type of disconnect.

So how can you quickly check for trouble?

Look at your website. If your website value proposition to clients and employees feels false, sounds like marketing babble, or strikes you as painfully generic, then you probably have a critical gap to address before building a KPI structure. You may not actually have a handle yet on value. This is solvable, but there is no use building any executive dashboard or KPIs until you do.

And whatever you do: make sure the way your understanding of value - to clients, employees, partners and vendors - is empirically based. Let them tell you what it is. Listen to them.

#7 Strategic Vital Signs: Do you have agreed upon definitions and data to measure your critical key performance questions?

The metrics you use to measure the key performance questions need to be available. These data need to occur at meaningful intervals. They need to be accurate. And, most critically, the definitions need to be agreed-upon by the leadership team.

This is challenging on a number of fronts:

Sometimes the data needs to be teased out of a complex tangle of systems. This can make for disruptive and time-consuming queries and automation.

Other times, different teams have conflicting interpretations - and systems - to track the same key business entities. (“That’s not a customer!”) This creates lingering tension and frustration between groups that frustrates data teams and will never diminish naturally on their own.

As CEO you are often the only one with the authority to clear these impasses and hurdle departmental resistance to defining a single version of the truth. This takes, as you know, some serious political capital.


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So what do you need to do to?

First make sure the definitions for each KPI are shared across groups - by selecting a winning definition if necessary. As ugly and political as it might be to create winners and losers organizationally, your actions and resolve make actionable insights possible.

When you have stable definitions - or a roadmap to strategic alignment - then make sure the instrumentation in your systems or processes can capture these values at the intervals needed. They will be the foundation upon which everything else will be build: dashboards, conversations, and assessments of project success.

When properly managed, all business initiatives and data projects will be attempting in some way to influence these key performance indicators. So make sure you have solid semantics, the data to count performance that matters and leadership consensus are critical from the start.

Don’t pass go and don’t collect $200 without locking these in.


The CEO Dashboard Bottom Line

This is all hard work and a lot less fun than just getting a dashboard.

But it is preparatory work that shapes an organization, large or small, profit or non-profit. It is also work that only you as CEO can do. Strategy, Vision, Communication, Prioritization: they all end up on your desk, and properly executed they can frame everything that follows.

“If I don’t see how it relates to what's on my CEO dashboard, then I'm not sure I care" can and should become your mantra.

Maybe you’re on top at these foundational challenges already - or maybe there’s room for improvement. But once you’ve managed these strategic challenges, you’re ready to create KPI dashboard instrumentation for actionable intelligence.

Your CEO dashboard will model your vision, your values, and your challenges to a “T.” Whether you are speaking with that receptionist of the chairman of your board, your conversations have a consistent and bright North Star.


Topics: CEO, KPI, Strategy, Dashboard

Adam Nathan

Written by Adam Nathan

Adam has been called "the John Ive of business simplification." He brings twenty years of experience helping business and non-profit leaders drive value with actionable insights. As a long-time business owner and CEO himself, he understands that creating value from information is never a given and that creating a data driven culture is a learned skill.

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