Books: Toughing it out at the top

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Secrets of CEOs: 150 global chief executives lift the lid on
business, life and leadership
Steve Tappin and Andrew Cave
Nicholas Brealey Publishing £18.00

Tappin and Cave offer instructive insight into the different models for leadership, but Paul Myners could have done without the locker-room quotes from CEOs.

Miller's Crossing (1990) was an early success for the Coen brothers. The film tells the story of a power struggle between two rival gangs in a Prohibition-era city. Caspar, an upstart Italian Mafioso, eventually overthrows O'Bannon, a tough Irish political boss, who had previously run the city, but Caspar soon concludes that 'being in charge of things ain't great'.

Dealing with the hard facts of life of corporate leadership is at the heart of Steve Tappin and Andrew Cave's The Secrets of CEOs. Being a CEO should be one of the best jobs in the world. You have the chance to make a real difference. Yet real life for most CEOs is tough and many are not enjoying it.

Tappin, a headhunter, and Cave, a financial journalist, have interviewed 150 company bosses (mostly UK-based and male) to find out what it's really like in the hot seat, what motivates the top CEOs and how the role might evolve.

CEOs may be lauded and rewarded, but the authors paint a picture of the boss as Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings - heavily burdened by responsibilities and accountability, clinging to their position, unable to stop, notwithstanding the strain on their health, happiness and relationships. Yet little of this is supported by the extensive quotations that run through their book, most of which are little more than puff. The CEOs exude self-satisfaction as they share platitudes and locker-room exhortations. There's little room here for admitted mistakes.

The fun of reading this sort of book is spotting the CEOs riding for a fall. It is not difficult to identify the candidates.

Tappin and Cave may have chosen to pad their book with many valueless quotations, but at the heart of their analysis lies a series of profound observations about corporate leadership and its evolution. In particular, they provide instructive insights into the taxonomy of leadership approaches. They identify five main styles of leadership: commercial executors, with a relentless attention to detail; financial value drivers, who emphasise corporate transactions; corporate ambassadors, with a vision that has societal impact; and global missionaries, driven to make a major difference, typically around customer championship, and inspiring people to maximise potential.

For each, the authors provide case studies that enhance definition. They cite the situations in which a style is going to be most successful, the types of industry in which it is most common, and the risks of each model. There are limitations to such a framework, but these are outweighed by the understanding derived from the analysis.

This framework will be useful for executives in self-evaluation and career-planning, and for those responsible for appointing leaders. It's unfortunate that the reader has to wade through babble and homily to find these gems and a prognosis for the next generation.

Tappin and Cave are conscientious and qualified observers of the challenge of corporate leadership but lack the self-confidence to rely on their own insights. They should have coloured their analysis by focusing on the exemplars in the community they identify. Just a few names - Riverstone's Lord Browne, Eric Daniels of Lloyds TSB and Sir John Parker at National Grid - stand out for the precision and wisdom of their observations.

The authors conclude with reflections on how CEOs will lead in the future. They argue that the leadership model of many traditional western 'command-and-control' businesses is destined to fail and needs to be replaced by a more fluid and fast-moving cell-like organisation. Top chief execs will require a small team of confidants (three, four or five people) at the centre of the business, but the authors still advocate a hierarchical model with a single CEO.

I have worked with CEOs who have singlehandedly made the difference (Sir Stuart Rose at M&S and Hans Snook at Orange), and I am increasingly persuaded that the right model for most businesses is one in which the CEO is first among equals, co-ordinating a team and rewarded as a team member rather than as a master of the universe. We have come to expect too much from one person and are frequently disappointed.

The Coens have something to teach us. Joel and Ethan write, direct and produce their films jointly. They are known in the film business as 'the two-headed director', and actors say they can approach either brother with a question and get the same answer. They represent a new-age CEO model that debunks the excessive expectations so often placed on team leader-ship, with the CEO as senior partner and the group defined by mutual accountability.

- Paul Myners is chairman of Land Securities Group and has chaired a number of public companies.

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