Dec 19, 2018

5 Tips For COOs on Working With an Impulsive CEO

Steve Jobs was a visionary, but he was also an impulsive and rash leader.

Mr. Jobs drove around without a license on his car, and he regularly parked in spaces reserved for the handicapped. As Apple chief design officer Jonathan Ive said of his attitude, “I think he feels he has a liberty and a license to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don’t apply to him,” wrote Tony Schwartz, quoting Ive in The New York Times. Schwartz also described Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos as impulsive leaders in his article, “The Bad Behavior of Visionary Leaders.”

While clearly an admirer of Jobs and the success of Apple, Schwartz added, “What disheartens me is how little care and appreciation any of them give (or in Mr. Jobs’s case, gave) to hard-working and loyal employees, and how unnecessarily cruel and demeaning they could be to the people who helped make their dreams come true.”

It is not uncommon to hear COOs confide that they wish their CEO were not so impulsive. The COO wishes he or she could exert more self-control and think through decisions.

Do you work with an impulsive CEO? Do you find that one day you are focused on a pressing priority, only to come in the next day and find your CEO all worked up about another urgent problem? You are asked to drop everything and help him, which not only can be disconcerting but also can have a negative impact on your ability to get things done.

Here are some tips for dealing with a CEO whose decisions can be whiplash-fast:

  1. Be Prepared and Patient. Any time your CEO comes to you with new ideas, changes to implement, practices to follow, pause and take a deep breath. Make notes of his requests. However, understand that you do not have to act on these items right away. Instead, add them to your list of things to do and look into them, determining which are worth pursuing.
  2. Be Understanding. Most successful business owners and CEOs are where they are today because of their creativity. While being creative can also seem to be impulsive to an onlooker, realize that for your CEO, this is one of his greatest strengths.
  3. Clarify. When you meet with your CEO, which we hope is on a weekly basis, be sure to recap the list of ideas she threw at you the week before, to get her reaction about them. From this discussion, you can gauge what is very important to her, or what can be eliminated. Get clarity on the ideas and come up with a plan of action to implement them.
  4. Prioritize. Being impulsive and prioritizing do not go hand-in-hand. Be sure to ask your CEO to prioritize what should be acted on immediately, and what can be dealt with soon.
  5. Manage the Process. As a trusted COO, you are the CEO’s wingman. Once you develop an action plan for a new idea, present it in simplified form. Discuss the resources needed, the external costs, the timetable and what the end results should be.

Members of the Forbes Coaches Council were asked to offer their suggestions on how to help executives “look before you leap” and avoid rash and impulsive decision-making. Their recommendations:

Write Down the Facts said Gina Gomez, Business and Life Coach. She elaborated:

“Before you decide to take action, write out what happened, who's responsible and your desired outcome. Highlight anything that's factual and discard the rest. Once you get clear on the facts, you can look at the situation from a less emotional point of view and respond based on what happened versus what you ‘thought’ may have happened.”

Actively Listen, said Melinda Fouts, Success Starts with You:

“Active listening is a vital tool to help you stay out of your thoughts. Reflect to the other person what they said. Once you have reflected, ask if there is anything they want to add. Using this technique, you slow yourself down, which enables you to think before you act. When you respond, ask them for feedback before taking action.”

Consider all Outcomes, said Andy Bailey, Petra Coach:

“When problems arise, instead of acting impulsively – or letting the CEO act impulsively -- take a moment to remind yourself of your end goal and contemplate all the different potential outcomes that will still get you there. It can be tempting to act quickly, and while it’s important to deal with issues efficiently, it’s more important in business to make a decision that won’t send you down an incorrect path.”


Your CEO became a top executive because he could make decisions quickly, act assuredly, inspire confidence, and communicate well, despite his impulsiveness. No doubt before you were his COO, he had another lieutenant who spent a great deal of time reining in his boundless creativity, rashness, impulsive decision-making and hastiness. You are not the first person that has had to deal with this type of executive behavior.

If you follow the tips above, you will be able to cope with this behavior, and not let the business (and your health) suffer as a result. As you encounter your CEO’s impulsiveness, remember that like all of us, he is not perfect. Recognizing the fundamental humanity of your CEO will go a long way towards increasing his trust in you, and helping the two of you run your organization smoothly for many years to come.

Next Steps:
  1. Understand the importance of providing transparent feedback as a COO.
  2. Review our delegation tips for Chief Operating Officers to increase productivity among your team.
  3. Learn why authenticity is so important for the Chief Operating Officer and how to become more authentic.

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