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A Brave New World for Leaders: The Future CEO


Every now and again a piece of business journalism comes along that truly catches my attention. The Sunday Times’ recent pullout on the Future CEO certainly did that.

In fact it was the best thing I’d read in ages.

Quite simply, this was a compilation of opinion pieces, statistics and insight that, combined, were the things that CEOs – contemporary or future – must consider to ensure business sustainability and personal success.

Overall, it was reassuring to see both a broader appreciation of the purpose of business – and being a CEO – not what it used to be, and increasing recognition that they have the stewardship of people and culture to consider besides the bottom line. The comment piece from Marianne Curphey said it all:

…while returns to shareholders remain a priority for the chief executive, this has to be paired with a greater emphasis on sustainability and purpose. You can be the best strategic and commercial leader, but if you can’t build genuine connections, you will struggle.

This is recognition that leaders who don’t ‘get’ people or can’t exercise interpersonal skills are at a disadvantage irrespective of their commercial acumen. For some, this is throwing out fundamental notions of what businesses and their CEOs are there to do.

From page one, there was a plethora of eye-opening percentages and wonderful statistics.

Here’s one example that set the tone for the entire pullout: a survey of global CEOs revealed that (whilst growth will always be a priority) 62% of them believed ‘creating a value-based culture with purpose’ was the most important business objective. Only 27% said the same for ‘creating shareholder and equity value for myself and others’.

In fact, there was so much great content that it’s hard to do it justice here. However, two things particularly stayed with me.

Firstly, it was the responsibility piling up on CEOs. In 2019, cyber security, income inequality, climate change, the ethics of Artificial Intelligence and ‘technology-induced job loss’ find themselves competing for a CEO’s attention, never mind the profit and loss account. A lot can be read into another statistic from a global cross-industry study of CEOs in which almost 50% said they were ‘somewhat prepared’ for taking on the role. A significant percentage found the people, cultural and transformational aspect of their roles ‘harder than expected’. Among the honest accounts was that of one CEO, Alister Esam, who captured his circumstances perfectly:

Most people don’t train to be a CEO, they just fall into the job, either by setting up a business or being promoted into it as they’re good at sales or operations. But it’s a big problem as no one tells you what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Hardly surprising then that the report made the case for future leaders prioritising – and making an ongoing commitment to – self-development; to “learn and relearn, which includes unlearning stuff that no longer serves them well,” according to one professor.

Secondly, and possibly symptomatic of this weight of responsibility, it was the tenure of a CEO. In an opinion piece by Institute of Directors Chair, Charlotte Valuer, a CEO finding themselves at the top of their organisation at the start of the year could expect ‘better than a one in ten chance’ they would have left this position 12 months later. PriceWaterhouseCoopers puts the average tenure at 4.8 years, and suggest that 16% of companies now change their leader every year.

Since Vana’s founding in 2004, my Co-Director Jo and I have had a front row seat in seeing how the business landscape – and what is asked of its senior leaders – has changed. In recent years we’ve seen a trend towards organisations becoming more ‘human’; i.e. placing a greater value on their culture, organisational make-up and people wellbeing (trends that we’ve touched upon in previous features). It’s no surprise then that the individual at the top of that organisation is increasingly having to make room for these things as much as the balance sheet and other traditional (and tangible) aspects of running a business. It’s heartening that we’ve seen a significant shift of priorities in this direction during the tenure of our stakeholder relationships.

The openness to relearn was also refreshing to see, and something we’ve also witnessed when hiring senior leadership development specialists for our clients. It suggests that this is a priority area for boards and leadership teams as much as the broader colleague talent and development proposition.

It’s encouraging that these things – once the preserve of people and HR functions, and all that they have long fought for – are now also the concern of the CEO. If this is the shape of things to come, we’ll certainly be watching future CEO hires with interest, and seeing whether this trend opens up a more natural career path for people leaders.

For now, the reality is that for various reasons – size, sector, inherent agility for example – some organisations will grasp this quicker than others. What also remains is that, whichever way you look at it, the expectations of CEOs remain a huge wish-list. Irrespective, for CEOs current or future, this supplement is required reading and one that I’m sure offered much food for thought the other weekend.

(feature image credit: Drew Beamer/Unsplash)