To navigate multiple and simultaneous disruptions, businesses need a CEO with vision. This enables them to attract and retain A-player talent, build resilient cultures and steer determinedly toward their true north.
Values inform vision, and values are lived and modeled by leaders. Whether your organization is navigating difficult circumstances, looking to get an early mover advantage on the next big thing or facing an unprecedented storm in your business, it is your leaders that will get you through. Won’t they?
I was sent this article recently in which The Economist explores the concept of "The overstretched CEO." The piece explores the unprecedented era of turbulence in which business leaders find themselves and the wider political and social context that envelopes them. It doesn’t make the job look very appealing. We’re starting to see this not only in the US but globally as well. CEO turnover is up, and CEO tenure is down, both by record-setting margins. Houston, we have a problem.
Too much to do, too much pressure
We’ve known for some time that the expectations placed on leaders have become so multiple as to be almost irreconcilable. We expect too many to exhibit the rich cocktail of skills and wisdom that are exhibited by a minority. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Never has so much been demanded by so many of so few.”
Be a visionary but take people with you. Be empathetic. Don’t be empathetic. Communicate more authentically. Deliver quarter-by-quarter. Innovate. Break with the past. Preserve what makes us great. Give us a long-term trajectory. Connect with everyone. Retain talent. Cut costs. Make us more money. Stay true to our values. Speak up for social justice. And on and on.
Not only is the job hard, but it’s also under constant scrutiny from diverse stakeholders with strong opinions of what excellence looks like.
It’s no wonder that anxiety is ubiquitous in the C-suite. It’s a complicated world, and no one could realistically claim to understand everything about the world in which we live and work today, much less where we are going.
Why are "traditional leaders" failing?
So, why is it that many leaders don’t work out, and others are leaving early? Typically, it’s not that they can’t do the job. It’s because they can’t do THAT job at THIS time. Leading a company is increasingly a function of getting the fit exactly right: matching the forward-looking demands of the organization and sector with the right combination of leadership values, traits and abilities. The right skills at the right time. This is making succession planning more complex and more high-risk. It requires a much deeper view into the future across the board – literally. The wrong hire at the wrong time could be catastrophic.
As a result, board of directors are increasingly opting for the tried-and-true leader over the more non-traditional one, not necessarily because they are the best choice, but because they appear to be the safe choice.
However, even going with the safest of options doesn’t get the full leadership impact necessary.
Enter the "unconventional traditionalist"
To address this, more forward-looking boards are adopting a leadership strategy of ‘both/and.’
They’re looking to identify a person who is both a traditional leader, i.e., someone who is a strong steward of the core values of the organization (“tried-and-true”) and a more creative, innovative character who is willing, at times, to make a clear, even radical, break from the usual way things are done. A person of both values and vision.
I call this leadership style the "unconventional traditionalist." These are values-driven leaders who understand and proudly reflect the culture but who have the probity, courage, and good judgment to make careful breaks with "the way we’ve always done it" when there’s a better way forward or in the face of some new disruption. They have a vision that is distinctive and a creative mindset. The unconventional traditionalist is custom-made for this time of multiple simultaneous disruptions.
Where are they, and how do you find them?
To find their unconventional traditionalist, businesses must first map all the future knowns and – to the degree possible – future unknowns. Then, they must identify the distinct leadership challenges each future scenario will demand. From this, they can create a hierarchy of the traits and capabilities they need to see in candidates.
The following will help:
- Promoting from within vs. recruiting from without. Who are your most creative leaders in the organization? Who are culture carriers that respect the firm's traditions but who are not captive to routine ways of thinking or behaving? Do you have any unconventional traditionalists already? The right candidate is a values-first culture carrier who is unafraid to go against convention – when needed.
- Understand the generational composition of your business. How many generations will you have in your future business? Increasingly, we are seeing distinctly different demands made of leaders based on the generation of their followers. Can you find someone who can engage with Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z and understand their differing needs? Is your unconventional traditionalist one of them?
- Undertake deep team assessments. What does the executive team this person will be leading look like? Are they aligned and high-performing? Are they change-resistant? What do they need to be won over? Are they all A players?
- Develop a thorough understanding of the current culture and how it must change. The late great Ed Schein taught us that leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin. The leaders and leadership team will have a disproportionate impact on culture, and culture will have a disproportionate impact on talent – attraction, development, and retention. Especially at the board level, make sure leadership and culture is on the agenda and put to a frequent, disciplined, and regular debate.
As with so many things involving leadership and people, finding and appointing an unconventional traditionalist requires sound data, explicit conversations, scenario planning, and calculated risks. Following these steps and adhering to a governance discipline established in the boardroom can minimize the risks of hiring or promoting the wrong leader.
It’s never been harder to find the right leader. Businesses need to get ahead of their leadership challenges and succession readiness by having a long-term, scenario-based strategy to find the right "unconventional traditionalist" for them. If they don’t, they risk making the wrong choice, the results of which could have profound—and potentially unrecoverable—consequences in today’s hyper-fast, disrupted world.