CEOs: What makes a modern day leader?

Peter Crush

Friday 24 April 2015

With 80 per cent of employees’ workplace effort linked to the rapport they feel with their manager, the role of CEO in business is more important than ever.

It was only this month that Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, revealed he simply “didn’t see it coming” when, in 2011, legendary former boss Steve Jobs suggested he should be the next chief executive. Jobs’s reason, says Cook, was precisely because he didn’t want the next CEO to be a “carbon copy of him”.

Three years down the line, Cook has proved just this. Often criticised for lacking what Jobs used to call “insane innovation”, Cook has instead become better known as the boss that begun dividend payouts, launched charitable foundations, improved social responsibility and demanded better working conditions for staff at its supplier factories. While none of these new directions may be wrong, what it does strikingly reveal is how two people (even in the same company), view the job of being the boss.

“The role of the CEO is definitely changing,” says Chris Roebuck, visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School and author of Lead to Succeed. “There’s a growing acceptance organisations need different types of CEO at different points in their cycle.”

Roebuck adds, however, that this is now compounded by the post-global economic crash landscape where trust in CEOs is low, and the work they expect their staff to do is greater – and more complex – as businesses respond to change.

“Given 80 per cent of employee effort is linked to the relationship with their line manager, it’s never been more important for the CEO to create a compelling vision, but which other leaders below him or her can then explain.”

Some might see this as nothing new at all, but simply a return to concepts of stewardship of old. Indeed, in recent years, academics have coined this as a move from the ‘command-control’ role to ‘authentic leadership’ and everything in between (the term ‘chief engagement officer’ has also done the rounds). But experts say there is a distinct current twist needed.

“Yes, the role of the CEO is to be decentralised, but there is a danger within this that they don’t create clarity of purpose,” says Tom Nixon, workplace expert and founder of NixonMcInness – a consultancy run on a ‘holacracy’ model (a social system of governance where decision-making is distributed to all staff).

“This would be wrong. It’s never been more important that the CEO creates meaning – and this is something he or she needs to be quite brutal about.”

Nixon argues, perhaps controversially, that in this context, the CEO no longer needs to be the Steve Jobs-like visionary because their role is really to surround themselves with those who are the visionary – what he calls doing the “delicate dance of living the purpose but getting out of the way”. As long as the whole team knows the direction of the company, he argues, they can all work together.

This view has its supporters. Geoffrey Riesel, CEO of Radio Taxis Group, has been the boss for 21 years. He says CEOs have always needed to set “the tone” but adds, “What’s evolved is the need for the team.

“Everything in business changes almost monthly now, so the real role of the CEO is to be ready to embrace change. A problem in business nowadays is that a lot of CEOs have big egos and don’t think anyone else can do their job, but that’s wrong.”

Perhaps the most important new element, though, is the ability of the CEO to be all-seen as well as all-seeing, and this means embracing internal social media technology (such as Yammer and the like) and external-facing technology.

“I don’t just mean being seen by others to be involved in the business, but also to involve external stakeholders more,” says Tony Wilmot, CEO and founder of recruitment business “Social media is such that all CEOs need to be much more in the public eye now. The CEO has to be much more willing to be the front-person of the business – to be seen to promote the brand. The days of the CEO sitting behind others in the background is long gone.”

Simon Culmer, managing director of Avaya UK (who reports to a US-based CEO), says, “When I first started my career, the advice I was always given for any CEO was ‘build the team, lead the team, and manage the numbers’.

“To a large extent, this still follows today. But the better CEOs are at getting these results, the more freedom they have to pursue other things. However, I only think CEOs need to contribute to a vision, not lead it – and that’s the biggest change.”

Will debate about the role of the CEO endure? You can bet that it will. Forbes recently revealed its checklist of what it takes to be an entrepreneurial CEO. Sometimes, though, it comes down to the simplest things: being brave, or being worried but not showing it.

“I’ve always said that the key role of a CEO is being able to take your people, with a wobbly ladder, across a metaphorical ravine,” says Riesel. “You need to convince them not to look down, and get them safely across. If you can do this, you’re doing a half-decent job.”

Click here for the study quoted in the introduction paragraph.

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