CEO’s Facing New Times

“So far leadership in the 21st century has been a walk on the wild side” or so begins McKinsey’s recent October newsletter and their article on today’s demands of leadership at the top.

We know the story: a global economy not for the faint hearted, shareholders and interest groups with new found power, changes in the external landscape that few punters would predict let alone back themselves with a bet, and a business world where complexity multiplies at a rate we would all like our profits to compound by.

Faced with such changes it is obvious that the challenges experienced by and the skills required to be a successful CEO, or any senior leader in today’s business world, are also changing rapidly. We are moving from an environment where the leadership comfort zone was one of control and absolute knowledge of both the internal and external environment, to one where resilience and ability to embrace vulnerability will be more useful tools in the leadership tool kit.

If like me, you believe that our business leaders have to replace some of the leadership vacuum created by our politicians – for the sake of our economy as well as our individual businesses – then like me, you may also believe that the investment in developing CEO’s and their leadership teams is one of the most significant and strategic a business will make over the next two to five years.

This will be an interesting journey for some current and aspiring CEO’s who, like many of us, achieved success by controlling the pond they operated in and by learning from those who controlled the pond before them. I am not sure that any of us have come across too many businesses where vulnerability was something that was understood, let alone embraced as something positive or even powerful.

Even as we start to sense that there are at least as many things in the bucket labeled ‘Problems I Can’t Control & Things I Don’t Know’ as in the ‘Other’ bucket, there is the risk of the shame of feeling that perhaps we aren’t good enough for the role and have to do more or work harder to compensate.

Not only does ‘what’ CEO’s learn need to change, but also ‘how’. By the time they have reached this level, a three-month or even six-week program at an international business school is not feasible nor will it produce the learning or the immediacy of the learning required. In many cases the solution will need to be bespoke.

Into this mix executive coaching and mentoring, long the domain of something the CEO invested for other members of their team, is likely to emerge as a strong development mechanism. For those CEO’s and board directors who have experienced effective coaching (and given the rapid development of the profession, there my not be that many), they will appreciate the value to be drawn from performance accountability and safe house support for learning, and at a level which is rarely achievable in-house.

While it is hard to estimate just how much more challenging the CEO role can become, it is a reasonable assumption that the graph will only continue in one direction – upward. If we are going to develop the leadership capability required to deal with the increasing ambiguity and complexity, we have to do a number of things, including:

• Acknowledge that the role and skill set required to succeed as a CEO in today and tomorrow’s business world, has changed and will require significant and ongoing development of the CEO and other senior leaders
• Value the development of leaders at the very top of the business as a critical business investment
• Appreciate that the development and learning solutions for our most senior talent will be bespoke. Performance coaching and/or mentoring are likely to be significant elements
• See the development of the CEO and their leadership team as a fundamental joint CEO and Board accountability, with a built in assumption for the need for ongoing learning and growth.

Anita Muller
October 2012

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