How the CEO's role is changing - according to CEOs

Future leaders will need to be more collaborative, but the buck will always stop here.

by Michelle Carson-Williams
Last Updated: 06 Dec 2017
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Down to business

New technologies, new generations and new business models are changing the way we live and work, and that change is getting faster. The businesses of tomorrow will not resemble the businesses of yesterday, so it would be strange to expect our leaders to stay the same.

The modern CEO has come a long way from the army general stereotype of the twentieth century. But if the role of the CEO is still transforming, what is it transforming into? What skills and attributes will we need from the CEOs of the future? How is their behaviour changing already, and why?

To find out the answers to these questions, I’ve been getting up-close-and-personal with a number of high-flying chief executives and senior leaders from various industries. We talked at length about what's challenging them at the moment, what’s causing them to stop and think about certain business decisions and, most importantly, what they believe is causing them to change.

Among those who shared their insights were: Ian McAulay (CEO of Southern Water), John Hogan (CEO of Rexel UK), Lee Newman (CEO of Elliott Group), Ian Graves (director, European business development, National Grid),  Adrian Colman (CEO, Wincanton),  Andrew Cleaves (CEO and principal, Birmingham Metropolitan College), Lee Mellor (president Europe, Keter Plastic), Nick Reed (CEO, Town Hall and Symphony Hall Birmingham) and  Sabina Nizamuddin (business manager, HS2).

They all had different insights to add, but it was clear that none of them feared change. Rather, they saw it as something to embrace.

How has the role of a modern CEO changed?

‘The generation of leaders that are coming through are far more flexible, far more travelled and far more educated. Modern CEOs show a bit more humility and allow customers and employees to see a real person – transparency is far more inspiring.’

‘CEOs need to be more diverse. It is important for the health of businesses, that they better reflect the communities they serve. I am worried about this process in the UK.  This is not happening fast enough. It is the job of the CEO to make this happen, I am trying to make this happen.’

‘A CEO’s role today is really to attract the best teams and people to come to want to work in the organisation. A CEO needs to set the culture and values that attract talent.’

‘I would like to think we have moved on from whether a CEO is a man or woman. It is clear to me, in a modern world, gender doesn’t matter and, in the future, businesses will see as many women in senior roles as men.’

How have you changed into a modern leader?

‘Being internally focused is a major part of my job these days, more than ever before. No matter how big your business is, everyone must feel included. I try to do three things – big collection group briefings, where I am putting out big messages, smaller collections where you can have intimate conversations and then just bumping into people. All three elements are important to a modern CEO – everyone deserves to get air-time.’

‘There are three types of structures of leadership these days – hierarchical, a collaborative matrix and the final one a partnership and mutuality. I believe that there is no other way to manage functional expertise and a modern senior leadership than with a collaborative matrix.’

‘I am, more and more, changing the way we use technology.  Modern leaders use technology to inspire people and enable staff.  The other important change is life balance.  Previously, senior leaders would rarely be at home.  This is changing, the importance of working life balance is becoming recognised and technology is enabling that to happen.’

What is challenging you at the moment?

‘Diversity is a challenge for us at the moment. Our industry has been predominately male, we ourselves have about an 80% male workforce, and we need to make our industry more inclusive.’

‘The challenge, as we become more data-oriented, is that everybody is analysing, everybody has analytics, everyone is doing it. It is the data intelligence and extracting the correct data that is important – not over-reacting to all these figures now at our fingertips.’

‘The openness of all the different media platforms is a positive challenge – people can access information and voice opinions and they are encouraged to do so.’

‘As with many businesses in the UK at the moment, Brexit is creating its own unique set of challenges [for us]. The currency and the downturn that was driven by Brexit is something our leadership team is focusing on at the moment.’

Is the hierarchical structure of a CEO a thing of the past?

‘I still believe in proper, although narrower, management structures. I still think that a leader has to focus their time on their leadership. A leader needs to do few things but do those few things very well and not be everything to everybody. Having a strong leadership team around a CEO allows them to do this.’

‘There will definitely be de-centralisation of power within organisations, but stakeholders always need someone to reward or hold accountable.’

What new skills must future leaders have?

‘Digital skills are absolutely key. I don’t think you can, as a leader, use the excuse of "I am not up-to-date with these things" or "I don’t do social media", these excuses are for CEOs of the past.’

‘Being up-to-speed with the technology-led transformation of the business is a new skill that used to be a nice to have and is now a must. A willingness and capability to lead a business through transformational change which is usually driven by technology is a very important skill not all CEOs have.’

‘It is ultimately the CEO who is responsible for a company’s success, its reputation and who is ultimately accountable for its results. However, the world is moving so fast now and technology is accelerating and changing every industry so, unsurprisingly, the role of the CEO is changing with it.’

For further information, or to download our exclusive discussion paper which details trends about the future of the CEO, please visit the Holmes Noble website:

Michelle Carson-Williams is chair and founder of executive interim and search firm Holmes Noble.


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