Books: Have you got what it takes to be boss?

Heidrick & Struggles boss Kevin Kelly (recently MT's man in Davos) tells us about his new book.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As chief executive of search firm Heidrick & Struggles (that's headhunter to you and me), Kevin Kelly spends a lot of time hobnobbing with other business leaders. Not content with running an international company, he's also found the time during his first year on the job to write a book called 'CEO: The low-down on the top job', which draws on all this experience to reveal exactly what it takes to be a business leader today.

Why did you want to write the book?

Throughout my career one question has followed me around: “What makes the right CEO?” In September 2006 I became a CEO myself. I knew I was going to be busy, but it seemed the perfect time to set about answering that question - as a new CEO I could ask my peers. Most CEOs write their memoirs after they’ve retired: I wanted to use the fact I was new to the position to work through some of the common dilemmas that face every leader. In my experience most CEOs fail because they think they know everything.

Your book doesn’t claim to offer an identikit for the perfect CEO – so where do you start?

My own plan for the first few months was to establish whether I had enough of the right people to get us where we needed to go. I knew what my strategy for the firm was; the unknown piece for me, even as an insider, was the people. I think most CEOs would agree that in these early days you find 20% of the individuals want to embrace change and get to where you’re going, 60% can go either way and 20% probably have to go because they don’t want to change and will do anything they can to throw roadblocks up. 

Do you have any advice for the CEOs who gathered at Davos recently?

Despite the dark economic predictions at Davos, I was inspired by the energy and optimism that ran through that entire meeting. For me, it underlined the fact that there is huge potential for business to act as a force for good – I think the CEOs we will remember will be those who did what was truly important over what was just urgent. 

Globalisation is a business reality and successful organizations must fill their ranks with genuinely global executives and invest in their development. Get your talent out on the road. Hire from burgeoning Asian and Chinese economies.

Which CEOs do you admire yourself?

I admire leaders who set the tone in a crisis – for example, Seung-Yu Kim who became CEO of the Hana Financial Group, Korea in 1997 when the economy was in trouble and the currency was overvalued. He focused on people, reshaping and restructuring; he put his own pay rise on hold and cut costs. But he never lost sight of the people - he’d make surprise visits to any banks he saw burning the late-night oil, treating them to delivery pizza. When employees are hospitalised (we’re talking some 12,000 individuals) Seung-Yu Kim visits them. I suppose it comes down to courage and making sure your actions match your words.

What will a CEO look like in 2020?

I spoke at a PwC Conference for executives, at the end of last year – I asked the audience of 450 people if those who wanted to be a CEO would raise their hand. Only four hands went up. These days fewer and fewer individuals want to take on the top job. Even in the last 3-5 years the role of CEO has changed dramatically – you can’t be dictatorial, you have to be more of an influencer otherwise you will end up with backlash in your organisation. You have to engage the hearts and minds of employees and lead them – to be a motivator and a facilitator. The need for these so-called ‘soft skills’ means when we look at executives we’re not just looking for IQ but the need to be able to read and understand situations – EQ (emotional quotient). And increasingly the successful leader will also have CQ (cultural quotient) earned via extensive international experience.

The majority of CEOs I spoke to during the writing of this book had experience-based career paths. I think this will continue for the CEOs of the future – they will have worked and led, throughout the world, in a variety of roles and functions. It doesn’t matter which sector the CEO comes from, most will have clocked up a lots of experience in different businesses and business functions.

‘CEO: The Low-Down on the Top-Job’ , published by FT Prentice Hall is available now, price £20.

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