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Volume 3 | Issue 1 | Winter 2016

10 Roles a CEO Must Play in 2016

The CEO position is more complex than it ever has been, and CEOs must have a much broader and deeper skill set to tackle this complexity. Looking to the year ahead, CEOs are expected to serve as experts in a wide range of areas – by their investors, their boards, their employees, and the public. Here are some of the demanding roles leaders must take on to address the needs of multiple stakeholders:

10 Roles a CEO Must Play in 2016

    1. Strategic Multi-Tasker: The biggest challenge for CEOs in 2016 is being able to deliver on the company’s core business – where the earnings and cash come from – while also transforming the business to be relevant in the future. So while CEOs must maintain the core base of their revenues, they have to adapt to whatever the macro factor is that is affecting their business, including changing customer preferences, technology shifts, disintermediation, and more.
    1. Futurist: We have entered a world in which even the best and the brightest cannot predict the biggest things happening around us: crude oil dropping below $40, the Arab Spring, currency fluctuations, what Russia and China will do next. Even if CEOs cannot predict events and trends, the market still demands that they react immediately and opportunistically in the face of incredibly complex and surprising events – and to be prepared before they happen.
    1. Tech CEO: Tech pundits have been saying for at least the last ten years that every company is a technology company – and this is now becoming a reality. Every CEO is now a “tech CEO,” or at least must act like one. Just look at Domino’s today: it is a tech company that happens to deliver pizza! General Electric is running ads that it is the “digital industrial company.” Whatever sector you’re in, technology is the future of your business.
    1. Growth Hacker: Since 2008, we have been trying to respond to the world in crisis by focusing on taking out cost. But where is the growth? It’s still elusive. We have trained a huge cohort of people since 2008 to be bottom-line cost-out executives – this is the playbook everyone is still using. But what the market is now demanding is growth, which is a different skill set. Many companies are still void of high-performing growth-oriented executives, and the CEO must help create a whole new growth agenda for his or her company.
    1. Activist Investor Handler: Activist investors are redefining the landscape and what it means to be a CEO and a board member. They are very smart, well read, and usually have a good perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing a company. If CEOs fight them hard, they usually do so at their peril. CEOs must figure out how to best engage with them as well as when to hold their ground on what is truly unreasonable. A CEO represents all of his or her shareholders, as does the board of directors, and it is important that a CEO looks at the company through this lens.
    1. Inspiring Storyteller: In a world full of data, nothing speaks to people – even investors looking at your hard numbers – more powerfully than a story. A leader who brings along stakeholders on the company’s journey is able to help define how the ‘audience’ is reading the data. When a company is on the downside of a curve, a CEO must offer hope that is compelling both inside and outside the company – simply saying “it is really hard” and “we are working hard and doing our best” is not enough. Usually, the company will replace a CEO who says this with someone else who can offer hope. Developing a compelling strategic narrative becomes the bridge from today’s reality to tomorrow’s opportunities.
    1. Inclusive Leader: We now have four very different generations in the workforce, and each is distinctive in terms of how they want to be led and what they value in a leader. CEOs and their leadership teams need to be good at developing and leading high-performing *and* inclusive teams. The notion of inclusive leadership is critical, as simply having a diverse company is not good enough. The modern CEO needs to have the range to their leadership style to have the *highest-performing* diverse and inclusive leadership team and company.
    1. Crisis Manager: As a CEO, you are going to be constantly stress-tested by events inside and outside your company, and how you respond to that stress will define you as a leader. You can look at the contrast between BP’s Tony Hayward and General Motor’s Mary Barra; Fortune called Barra 2014’s “crisis manager of the year,” while Hayward complained “I would like my life back” (and he got it). People’s response to a stress event is typically binary: you are either good at it or you are not. It is important for a leader to understand their response to a stress event so they can define their leadership in a strong and powerful way rather than being run out of the company.
    1. Information Seeker: The days of being a high-performing company that is focused internally are gone, as are the days of being led by a CEO who stays too inwardly focused. The world demands a CEO who is always looking outside and bringing new insight and ideas back into the company – and challenging everything the company is doing every day. Many of the most successful companies that ultimately run into problems are inwardly focused; this starts with the CEO and becomes a model for the culture as well. And undervaluing or discounting the external perspective – no matter how foreign it may seem – often ends badly for a CEO and/or the company itself.
  1. Board Engager: The days of six easy board meetings per year are also gone. Directors are working harder than ever, and the issues facing companies and boards have gotten more much complex. So the CEO must develop a meaningful relationship with his or her directors and develop a trusting and transparent dialog. The #1 way a CEO gets fired is by losing control of his or her agenda, and the boardroom is typically where this happens. Directors are taking action faster than ever before, and they are coming to meetings prepared and interested in digging into the issues with management. CEOs must be prepared for this, and engage with the board at a much deeper level in this new era of board governance.