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The Internet is rife with clickbait content which reduces the journey towards the CEO title to a seemingly simple numbers game:
- “3 things you need to do to become a CEO by age 30”
- “5 things every woman must do to become CEO of a company”
- “How to Become a CEO in 12 Steps (with pictures!)”
And my recent favourite:
- “The One Trait Shared by the Greatest CEOs (That You Won’t Find in Business Books)”
Matt Given, CEO of Intelivideo, wrote the “one trait” piece for Inc.com.
His one trait that all great CEOs share is … wait for it … OWNERSHIP. Um, yeah. I get its importance.
But reading his article represents three minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Does he really think we’re that gullible? Truly, if becoming the big boss were that easy, most of us would already be in the C-Suite.
Thus began my search for substance.
In a study the Harvard Business Review featured earlier this year, the leadership consultancy ghSmart released results from their 10-year CEO Genome Project.
They profiled over 2,000 Fortune 500 CEOs and their findings confirmed my suspicions…
The “One Size Fits All CEO” Is A Myth.
Especially in today’s climate.
The research team discovered that most corporate boards are still seeking—and perpetuating—an outdated stereotype:
- A six-foot-tall white male with a degree from a top university (Note: according to the study, only 7% of the CEOs interviewed graduated from Ivy League schools)
- Said white male was born a strategic visionary
- His career path has been a meteoric rise to the top
- He has super-human decision-making abilities
John Karagounis, owner of The CEO Circle—Australia’s leading exclusive peer group forum for business leaders—offers a fresh perspective:
“Great CEOs come in all shapes and sizes. From the flamboyant like Richard Branson through to the quietly spoken like Google’s Sundar Pichai. Some are extroverts, others introverts… Some excel at working on the granular details that keep an organisation running smoothly; while others do their best work from up on high, formulating strategy or dreaming big about brilliant products. Others still are just great all-rounders.”
Adam Bryant, who penned the New York Time’s column, The Corner Office, agrees.
If it hadn’t been for Bryant’s breakthrough interview technique, he may not have reached the same conclusion as Karagounis.
Had he spent the last decade asking 525 CEOs standard questions about expected business topics, we might be sharing different news.
But thankfully Bryant went for broader, more meaningful, themes with his interviewees. Such as how they lead, how they hire and what their lives have been like.
Bryant shares that…
“The career trajectories of the CEOs I’ve interviewed are so varied that spotting trends is difficult, and a surprising number of the executives do not fit the stereotype of the straight-A student and class president who seemed destined to run a big company someday.”
However, in his vast experience, Bryant did observe three commonalities.
1. Boundless Curiosity.
The best CEOs question everything. They explore new paths, and want to know people’s stories and what makes them tick.
They make the most of whatever path they’re on, extracting valuable lessons from all their experiences.
2. Discomfort = Comfort Zone.
For great CEOs, discomfort is their comfort zone.
Arkadi Kuhlmann, a veteran banking chief, said that he likes to be close to whatever the hottest issue is: “I just naturally gravitate to the fire. So I think that’s a characteristic that you have, that’s in your DNA.”
3. Ability To Be Present.
Successful CEOs got where they are, in part, by doing their current job well.
Not that ambition is a hindrance, but the leaders Bryant has featured warn against putting too much energy into where you want to be versus where you are.
Gender Bias: Fact Or Fiction?
Bryant confesses that, early on, he looked for differences in the way male and female CEOs lead their people. His final conclusion was that gender generalisations don’t hold up.
Again, the only generalisation that does is that every person is unique.
He did express that “women face much stronger headwinds than men to get the top jobs. And many of those headwinds remain once they become CEOs.”
His take on the matter?
Keep talking about why there are so few women in the top corporate spot. But, as is consistent with his interview style, quit asking pat questions about stereotypical topics such as juggling family and work.
Or, ask men CEOs the same question to level the playing field.
Glass Ceiling vs Glass Cliff.
Speaking of changing the conversation on how to become the big boss, earlier this month, HBR published another CEO study.
This time, about women in particular.
While the concept of a glass ceiling is quite familiar, this research called out the prevalence of a “glass cliff” phenomenon. New research from the Academy of Management reveals that women are more apt to be chosen for CEO roles when the stakes are highest.
(Think Marissa Mayer.)
The positive: Extreme turnaround situations are ideal scenarios for tenacity, problem-solving skills and the desire to make things better. The lessons learned can be career builders.
The negative: The lessons learned can result in failure and a tarnished career. Which means the door revolves yet again in the C-Suite.
But, like all other aspects of the CEO gene pool, failure is not a gender-specific trend.
Why Some CEOs Fail.
(Related Article: “Are CEOs Less Ethical Than In The Past?)
David Reimer, CEO of C-Suite consulting firm Merryck & Co., cites some noteworthy contributing factors. While we won’t touch on all of them, a few stood out as trends to watch:
1. Resting On Past Laurels.
While Bryant credits successful CEOs with being present in their current roles during their ascent to the top, Reimer has observed that CEOs who fail tend to dwell in the comfort of what worked at their last company.
2. Hiding In The Echo Chamber.
Reimer advises CEOs to get out of their own head. Rather than turning the corner office into an ivory tower, successful CEOs reach out to seek perspectives that differ from their own—both inside and outside their company and industry.
The corner office is more transparent than ever.
Examples: the resignation of Mozilla’s CEO Brendan Eich after being bashed for his support of “traditional marriage; and, the apology from Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel for accusing other social networks of spreading fake news.
Ten years ago, before social media, these public missteps would never have been, well, so public. Today, according to Reimer, a CEO must assume the same lack of privacy that celebrities and pro athletes confront daily.
It bears pointing out that the two example CEOs are American.
Let’s take a local look at the risk overexposure can pose to CEO longevity.
CEO Snapshot: Alex Malley.
First, an excerpt from Malley’s job description according to afr.com:
“The CPA Australia CEO is required to: ensure the vision and strategic goals of CPA Australia are achieved; be a key ambassador for the organisation globally; positively influence key external organisations; enhance CPA Australia’s position as a premier global brand; provide inspirational leadership to the executive team.”
So, for all intents and purposes, his CEO role seems to be focused on that of brand ambassadorship.
Unusual in its exclusive focus? Yes.
Part of CPA Australia’s key business strategy? Evidently. It was confirmed by an independent review.
Did he take it too far? Perhaps.
Here’s how his self-promotional marketing plan broke down:
- $4.2 million on Conversations with Alex Malley (includes the Neil Armstrong interview)
- $1.8 million on publishing and promoting The Naked CEO
- $1 million a year on LinkedIn (500,000 followers and counting) and other social media
- $1.25 million getting Malley and the CPA brand in front of Qantas passengers.
While some are calling the financial figures shocking, the $8+ million price tag is modest when you consider the average marketing budget for a financial firm is 8% of total revenue.
In CPA’s case, whose 2016 revenue was reported as $180,115,000, an average total marketing budget would be around $14 million using the 8% rule.
When, on June 23rd, Malley was forced out of his CEO role due to his exuberant pursuit of his brand-building charter, his defence was:
“My only crime is that I took a public profile on public interest issues on the way we ran the business. But here’s the thing, the board set the strategy and I executed the strategy…
“At the end of the day, we’ve had a fantastic business, successful, and it just resembled a tall poppy and it was time to chop it off.”
Is The Naked CEO A Tall Poppy?
Maybe you like Malley; maybe you don’t.
Maybe you think the Tall Poppy syndrome is valid; maybe you feel it’s time for an evolution.
Regardless, I want to take one last look at Alex through Jonathan Karagouis’s lens.
In his previously quoted blog, Five Qualities That Make a Great CEO, a few have Malley written all over them. Here they are, abbreviated for relevance.
- Understand their USP. Great CEOs are keepers of the brand flame. They get what makes the organisation work and they understand its unique selling proposition. Above all else, great CEOs work to protect, cherish and enhance their company’s brand and USP.
It’s hard to deny that Malley achieved this one.
- Communicate well and often. Great CEOs understand the power of a quiet chat away from the crowd as well as the power of broadcasting to a wider audience. They use the right medium for the job, from face-to-face meetings through to social media to get their message across.
While we could nitpick about his mediums (and lack of quiet chats), he did communicate often and was consistently on-message.
- Build strong stakeholder relations. A company, an organisation, is a cooperative effort. It is the job of the CEO to rally a disparate group of people behind that vision. This takes political skill and requires the capacity to persuade and build consensus.
On the relationship front, Malley was criticized for using his public persona to “back scratch.”
Was he really back scratching, or was he bringing together other community leaders (such as the commissioner of taxation, the auditor-general and a renowned indigenous leader, to name a few) on behalf of his brand?
Is this perception just another manifestation of the Tall Poppy milieu? Tall Poppy or not, Malley’s story is a cautionary tale for anyone aspiring to become the big boss.
For all you CEO aspirants out there reading this now, take heed.
Despite your talents, background, abilities and intentions, endless people and circumstances will conspire to bring you down.
I suspect it’s something you can’t quite fathom until you live through it.