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Being the CEO for a Day - A Safety Exercise

By Brian Fielkow
Published: October 19, 2016
Presented by Brian Fielkow
Key Takeaways

In changing our business culture, nothing turns off employees faster than sensing that their leader has assumed he or she knows exactly what’s right or wrong. Pretending that we always know only gets us into trouble.

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An excerpt from the much anticipated release of Leading People Safely: How to Win on the Business Battlefield


Sometimes it’s difficult for us as business leaders to admit that we don’t have all the answers. Yet the reality is that we face many situations and decisions where we need to turn to other people and resources for ideas, guidance, or suggestions. Pretending that we always know what’s right only gets us into trouble.

This is definitely true when it comes to changing our business culture. Nothing turns off employees faster than sensing that their leader has assumed he or she knows exactly what’s wrong and, without seeking their input, is charging full speed into his or her own secretly hatched plan. Do not make this mistake. Take a different approach. Make it a regular practice to gather feedback and ideas from your team.

One effective way to do that is to bring your employees together and engage them in an exercise called “CEO for a Day.” You can call upon this exercise at any time to address any specific problem or issue that appears to be sabotaging your company’s performance or workplace environment. Jetco used this resource to ask its team what we were going to do to improve employee retention and further drive safe behaviors. The results were even better than we imagined, generating tangible ideas that turned the tide on the problem and enhanced employee ownership of the process. You can definitely use this tool as an effective means of setting your course on your safety culture.

Let’s go through the exercise step by step:

Step 1: Talk to your employees. Admit that just because you are the CEO or president, you really don’t have all the solutions. You may not even have most of the solutions. You believe that your team has the best answers, and you’re eager to hear them. Your front lines are your most valuable, but most often overlooked, asset. They have many great ideas if you take the time to listen to them.

To help them get started, frame one question to focus on. Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or no. You don’t have to make it as direct as “How do we change our culture?” That’s one option, but it may sound too broad or all-encompassing to your employees (unless they’ve read this book!). They might respond more readily to questions related to key aspects of your culture:

  • How do we improve morale?
  • How do we make our company a great place to work?
  • How can we build a stronger, more cohesive team?
  • What are the values that we commit to live by?

You will most likely know the most effective way to get the conversation going, and if your first attempt at naming the question to answer does not engage your team, listen for clues from them to revise it to land on a subject they have a whole lot to say about.


Step 2: Solicit your team’s direct feedback on the question agreed upon. We suggest doing this through an anonymous survey format, one that allows your employees a few minutes to put their thoughts into writing rather than feeling forced to stand up and speak in front of you and all their peers without time to prepare. You are more likely to receive honest, open responses.

As you collect these replies, try not to correct them except for small changes to improve clarity or smooth out rough grammar. Even if you notice a totally impractical idea or suggestion, keep it in there. The person who wrote that response will see how his or her peers receive it in Step 3.

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Step 3: Bring your team back together to share and discuss all their responses. Small breakout groups will usually facilitate a more productive discussion. Direct each group to evaluate all the responses and to select the ones that will best help your company address the problem or issue named in the opening question. Don’t worry if strong feelings bubble up. Trust that your employees are finding their way to truthful, substantive responses that will lead to positive changes in your company.

Move the discussion toward a vote. When we lead this exercise, we list all the responses from the survey on flip-chart-sized pages attached to the wall. Give participants four black sticky dots and one red sticky dot. Tell them to attach the red dot to the single best idea with the black dots going to the next four most effective ideas. With a scoring system of one point for each black dot and three points for each red dot you total the points. You can expect the votes to cluster around a tight handful of ideas.

Next, identify the top five ideas as voted upon by your team. Lead a discussion about how your team will implement these ideas, who is responsible, and the time frame for completion. Remind your employees that an idea is useless without a firm execution plan. Then, assign small working groups to implement each idea.

Step 4: Implement the prioritized ideas. After mostly stepping back during the survey and sorting out the responses, you will likely need to assume more of a facilitating role here. Teach people how to operationalize the ideas that they believe will improve morale or do whatever it is they set out to accomplish. Use your experience as leader to provide guidance on how to turn a goal into a reality, but empower your team to fully execute their plan. This is an important step in empowering your employees to be a part of changing your company culture.

When the Jetco team followed this exercise to address how to improve retention, the top idea that emerged was to form a driver committee and make sure it had a place in every important company meeting. The Jetco Driver Committee (DC) was founded to serve as the voice of our men and women on the road. Peers elect committee members, and a representative from the DC is present at every operations meeting. This change increased the sense of ownership among drivers, the heartbeat of the company; it also helped knock down the silos that kept divisions and groups apart. Tearing down silos is an essential part of building a business safety culture.

Step 5: Celebrate your success. Give your participants credit for inspiring a change that is improving your workplace environment.

There’s an added bonus from conducting this exercise. As well as developing tangible ideas that will aid in your culture intervention, the CEO for a Day experience itself can serve as a catalyst for your team’s more consistent engagement. “You had the ideas of how to deal with our problems all along,” you remind them. Now, encourage them to create and sustain that sense of empowerment not just for one day, but every day. The exercise introduced them to this concept: you are empowered, you know what to do, and you have the tools.

This has been an excerpt from the much anticipated release of Leading People Safely: How to Win on the Business Battlefield

Register for Brian's upcoming webinar here


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Written by Brian Fielkow | CEO, Jetco

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Brian Fielkow is CEO of Houston-based Jetco Delivery. Brian has twenty-five years of business experience in safety-sensitive industries, including as executive vice president of Recycle America Alliance, and is the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture (Two Harbors Press, 2014). A Wisconsin native, he lives in Houston with his wife and three children
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