Essential Skills for 21st Century CEOs

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The scrutiny placed on modern business leaders is greater than ever before. The sheer speed at which decisions must be made and strategies enacted across an organisation, coupled with employees, customers and shareholders expecting ever more communication, means today’s CEOs must hone the skills needed to thrive in such a fast-paced business environment.

Chris Merry, CEO of professional services firm RSM Tenon, says: “People expect a lot compared to what they did ten years ago, in terms of what they get from the top of the business; what they are told, how they are told it and how frequently they are communicated with. It’s up to modern CEOs to rise to the challenge.”

If there’s one skill that has gained prominence it is the ability to communicate with aplomb, and to do so particularly in the harsh glare of the spotlight: both internal and external.

Ursula Morgenstern, a first-time CEO at IT provider Atos UK, comments: “The sheer public attention takes some getting used to. I walk in a room and everybody watches whether I smile, where I sit, to whom I talk. I had been a senior person at Atos for the last five years but the attention that is paid to the CEO and what I project is incredible, and it’s meant that I’ve had to learn to balance my natural informality that appeals to staff with the public persona that’s required of a CEO.”

Regardless of ‘persona’, keeping your head and remaining clear and firm as to your intentions is crucial. Andy Blundell, Chief Executive of outsourced customer marketing supplier Communisis, says: “It is important to be able to clearly articulate the company’s identity and growth strategy to any audience, very quickly… the CEO must set the tone in terms of work ethic and spreading the fundamental belief that the company will succeed.”

The need to connect via different media with teams that are dispersed across different countries presents additional challenges in terms of communication and engagement. “The emergence of multichannel communications has made the flow of information more immediate and unstructured,” says Mark Powles, CEO of Business Stream, a subsidiary of Scottish Water. “This puts a greater personal responsibility on the CEO to understand and respond to threats and opportunities when engaging with customers, stakeholders and staff.”

Naturally, all stakeholders will want to see the leader’s vision for the business and will hold him/her accountable for the decisions taken. In many cases they will also want to feel part of that vision. Therefore, while CEOs must still lead and make it clear where the buck stops it is also vital that they are seen to be inclusive and transparent in their leadership style and that, where appropriate, they invite others to participate in how the business is shaped and grown.

David Turner, CEO of outsourced contact centre company HEROtsc, comments: “Even if people don’t necessarily agree with the decisions you’ve made, as long as it’s done solidly and they can see the argument has been created, by and large you’ll get more people following you than not. For instance, I do a monthly blog about the business because it’s clear to me that people want to see what your opinions are, whether you have one, what you are trying to do with the business and where it’s going.”

Create a culture of leaders

Put simply, today’s CEOs cannot do everything themselves. More than ever, however, the organisations they lead must have a culture that allows for the speed and agility required to remain competitive. To be truly agile, CEOs must empower others.

“There’s a huge need for leaders to be able to create leaders throughout the organisation,” says Kevin Murray, Chairman of PR consultants Good Relations Group. “Those leaders have to be highly empowered to create that agility you need in companies. If something appears on a Twitter feed, within seconds you can have a global disaster on your hands. But, likewise, if you don’t respond to a customer’s complaint on a service delivery query appropriately and quickly, it could blow up to become a major issue for you overnight. That’s why leaders are now asking: how do I build an organisation that can respond at speed but also in the right way?”

Leaders must be confident enough to give others the power to take appropriate risks and encourage them to take responsibility. This boils down to trust. And trust comes from authenticity.

Jo Sellwood-Taylor, Founding Director at executive recruitment firm Mullwood Partnership, has conducted interviews with more than 100 leaders from a wide range of sectors and countries. “Our research found that what makes the difference between a good CEO and a stellar one is people leadership,” she says. “The world is more complex and to capitalise on it you need to create a culture of innovation among your managers and your workforce.

“Because the CEO role is very externally focused, the most important behavioural aspect is authenticity, being genuine and being very self-aware so that not only how you come across is suitable but that you also know what people you need around you to be effective.”

Chris adds: “People skills are the essence of what a CEO does. Interacting with people, trying to influence people and remove barriers. Looking forward over a longer time horizon than the day-to-day so you can see what the strategic path is, making sure you’ve got the right people around you to get that in place and managing and inspiring those people to deliver the strategy.”

Empathy is increasingly a prerequisite for successful leadership. Effective CEOs must have an innate understanding of what makes those around them tick, giving them the perspective needed to lead and influence teams and individuals and therefore judge situations with speed and accuracy.

Kai Peters, CEO of Ashridge Business School, says: “When working with business leaders we try to consider the strategic landscape and all of the normal business skills, but also the drivers and psychology of the individual, through 360-degree coaching and so on, and also the behaviour of others. In effect, two thirds of the work we do on leadership development is about psychology.”

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Build strength in depth

Trust and empathy are all well and good, but the talent needs to be there and it needs to be ready for responsibility. Aspiring talent must be nurtured to handle the pressure of the top role so that, when their turn comes, they are already comfortable with the spotlight and know what to do when it hits them.

Andy comments: “In a Plc environment it is traditionally only the CEO and FD who are routinely exposed to banks, advisors and investors. We’ve recently taken steps to change this by exposing other senior managers to, for example, an ‘investor day’. This is good for their personal development and investors like it because they see strength in depth – it sends a confident message about the organisation.”

Ultimately, certain skills required to lead an organisation in the 21st century are evergreen. But, while a CEO’s role will always be about setting a framework for direction and the goals to achieve it, those most effective in the role will be the ones that provide a context that allows for collaboration.

“We’re living in a radically transparent world where leadership is under scrutiny and is being challenged from every direction,” says Kevin. “A CEO’s tenure has been shortening all the time and even the smallest mistake results in resignations and people baying for heads to roll. It’s a harder job than ever and leaders must be much more inclusive in their leadership style if they are to succeed.”

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