Juggling vs. Plate Spinning

I spent most of my summers as a kid hanging around at tennis tournaments across the South. You spend a lot of time at these events just waiting: Waiting for your court to open up…waiting for the courts to dry, etc. With all this free time I taught myself to juggle tennis balls. Juggling is like riding a bike in that once you master it, your arms just remember how to do it without you really thinking about it. It is one continuous motion while keeping a constant rhythm.

There are many jobs that are like juggling in that you learn a set of basic skills and then you perfect and repeat that skill over time. That skill might be something like sales where you develop a process and try to repeat it as much as possible. While similar to juggling, sales can be quite hard: The problem is not usually in knowing what to do; the problem is in being able to execute the necessary steps.

The CEO job, on the other hand, is (or should be) more like plate spinning than juggling. On first glance, you might consider plate spinning (keeping a number of plates spinning on top of a narrow rod) to be similar to juggling, because you are keeping multiple objects in motion at the same time, but it is fundamentally different. While juggling is a single continuous motion, plate spinning requires constantly observing all the plates and reacting to each one before it slows down too much and falls off the rod.

The CEO job always felt to me like plate spinning instead of juggling. As much as you might like to get into a rhythm and deal with every issue the same way, the breadth of issues that you face requires you to treat each one as a unique problem that demands just the right approach. Knowing what to do is the most common problem, as opposed to how to do it. Also, if you ignore a problem for too long, it can easily cause major breakage in your organization.

Often, new CEOs tend to focus on the part of the business they are most familiar with and start juggling, because it makes them comfortable. For instance, if they are product people they focus on creating great products and leave other parts of the business for their senior executives to handle. This is very dangerous as there are certain standards that only the CEO can enforce. Just like in plate spinning, if you take your eye off any one area for very long, something is going to break.


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