The mod­ern CEO: No longer all-know­ing, all-pow­er­ful gi­ant

The Star (Kenya) - - News - CHRIS HAR­RI­SON

Way back in 1959, be­fore I was born, an English writer called Alan Sil­li­toe penned a short story – The Lone­li­ness of the Long-Dis­tance Run­ner. Later it be­came a film clas­sic. It’s a gritty story about a boy from a dis­mal home in a low-in­come area, who has bleak prospects in life and few in­ter­ests beyond petty crime. The boy turns to the sport of long dis­tance run­ning as both an emo­tional and a phys­i­cal es­cape from his sit­u­a­tion.

That ti­tle came back to me as I read the most re­cent think­ing from the or­gan­i­sa­tional be­hav­iour de­part­ment at Lon­don Busi­ness School – a piece by Richard Jolly, Ad­junct Pro­fes­sor of or­gan­i­sa­tional be­hav­iour en­ti­tled with no small irony ‘Happy at the Top’.

The lone­li­ness of com­mand is well un­der­stood in al­most ev­ery cul­ture on the planet. History is packed with con­tent on the soli­tary strug­gles of em­per­ors, pres­i­dents, gen­er­als, re­li­gious and hu­man rights lead­ers. Over­com­ing ob­sta­cles, be­ing cast down, resur­gence and sub­se­quent ac­cla­ma­tion. Th­ese tales fire our imag­i­na­tion and some­times in­spire our ac­tions.

Jolly was writ­ing of course about lead­ers in mod­ern or­gan­i­sa­tions and busi­nesses. And in par­tic­u­lar about the ca­pa­bil­ity gap that emerges and grows when you achieve a se­nior po­si­tion.

“When you were a ju­nior it was sim­ple,” says Jolly, “you were a great en­gi­neer, a bril­liant mar­keter or finance per­son. Suc­cess came through hard work and you rapidly climbed the ca­reer lad­der. Your hu­man cap­i­tal (knowl­edge and ex­per­tise) is what got you pro­moted.” Now? The skills that got you to the top are not the only skills you need to be suc­cess­ful. In fact, the skills that you knew and loved are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly re­dun­dant.”

It is in­deed easy to make the mis­take of think­ing you al­ready have all the knowl­edge and ex­per­tise to suc­ceed in the top role. The fact is, the more se­nior your role, the less it’s about what you know and the more it’s about how to get things done through other peo­ple.

We call this your so­cial cap­i­tal. And if you rise to se­nior­ity without un­der­stand­ing this, you may very well find your­self won­der­ing how it’s sud­denly all got so dif­fi­cult.

Do you have the ca­pa­bil­i­ties to han­dle new types of work? Are you able to man­age peo­ple where you don’t un­der­stand what they’re do­ing? Are you able to ac­cept that change often comes from within the or­gan­i­sa­tion? Some­times from the bot­tom not the top.

Do you know full well that the Milen­ni­als en­ter­ing your or­gan­i­sa­tion are much bet­ter ed­u­cated and more qual­i­fied than you were at their age? In fact, with your cur­rent skill set, you might never get a job if you were start­ing out in your sec­tor today. That’s lonely.

You may not even be sure what suc­cess means as a CEO. You have to fig­ure out what your role is. The higher you are pro­moted, the more am­bigu­ous your job be­comes. This isn’t the 20th cen­tury where the ‘great man’ at the top of the com­pany was seen as an all-know­ing and all-pow­er­ful gi­ant. The role of a CEO is evolv­ing rapidly. “The widely ac­cepted idea of ‘cas­cad­ing in­for­ma­tion’ is com­pletely wrong for busi­ness today,” ar­gues Jolly.

The mod­ern CEO does not have all the in­sights held in a jug of wis­dom that she sim­ply pours down the moun­tain­side. The job is no longer to tell peo­ple what to do then ad­min­is­ter the sys­tems and pro­cesses to check they’re work­ing. Even the ti­tle of the most widely revered busi­ness qual­i­fi­ca­tion is out­dated – Mas­ters in Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

So, can you as a leader cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery sin­gle per­son in your com­pany knows why they’re work­ing for you, where we’re go­ing, and how to bring things they’re good at to help achieve the stated am­bi­tions? That’s what the best busi­nesses today are do­ing.

Let’s ex­plore how best to do this in the com­ing weeks.

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