The changing role of the 21st century CEO

“We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are”- Max Depree

Are You the CEO of an Organization Seeking Transformation?  If yes, you must encourage data-driven dialogues and nurture dialogue-driven leaders on your teams.

Organizations looking to transform themselves to address data-driven and technology-driven change need, more than ever, CEOs who are willing and able to adopt new ways of planning, acting, communicating and learning, with the goal of becoming both servant leaders and chief learning officers.

CEOs Must “Learn and Serve” if They Wish to Lead

CEOs must work to make their organizations’ strategic processes participatory, inviting employees’ input into the planning process to surface ideas and concerns, and to spot emerging threats and opportunities.  CEO’s must lead the building of teams composed of both learners and leaders who can adapt to externalities and adopt internal processes that promote agility.

In the late 1980s Max DePree, Chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, wrote about the art of leadership and of the leader’s role as servant to those one wished to lead.  Today, more than ever, Max DePree’s ideas hold sway because information and change come at us faster than ever and no one person can effectively cope. Thus, CEOs must adopt a new role as Chief Learning Officer and chief mentor if they are to succeed at understanding the relevance and value of the changes happening around them.  And from this position, they must encourage the same behavior in their teams.  They have to show everyone the path to learning and adapting – the agile path. Only then can they serve, lead and succeed.

Traditional Approaches to Planning Won’t Work

Traditional strategic and competitive planning (the purview of the CEO) focused on and put effort toward the puzzle pieces of organizations – company strengths, weaknesses and culture; customers; competitors; collaborators; and the context in which they all interacted.  Various consultants and management educators often advocated for one “C” category over another to differentiate their thinking or offering, or to show agility in the face of changing times. That agility has never been more necessary than it is today because data- and technology-driven disruption has created an evolving environment that demands agile, vigilant responses.

Organizations faced with industry disruption must address first and foremost the wants and needs of their customers and, more than ever, their employees. They must address each of the above “C” categories, but with an emphasis on solving for the needs of their customers. And CEOs must add to their processes efforts to engage fully the people within their organizations.  To do this, CEOs must transform how they lead their organizations to think and act.

In the face of digital and data disruption, CEOs can no longer focus solely on internal efficiencies and cost savings to promote profitability. Nor can they focus chiefly on branding or pricing to overcome their acknowledged competitors.  Instead, today’s organizations must compete within themselves to meet the needs of current and targeted customers; and they must work to “do it right” and not simply to “do it better.”  This means internal teams, departments and other groups must compete with each other and cooperate with each other to transform the customers’ experiences by empowering employees to think and act in ways that, ultimately, transform the organization itself.  And to do this, those teams need leadership from the top that promotes thinking critically, communicating transparently, and acting with agility.

CEOs Need to Reinvent Planning and Decision-Making

The changing role of the CEO includes promoting change to the organization’s planning processes.  Gone are annual planning cycles and 3-5 year roadmaps.  Organizations focused on traditional thinking and acting will not spot the opportunities available to them, nor the threats confronting them.  Today’s CEO must insist on continual strategy review, and put in place mechanisms, and digital tools, to gather “outside-in, real-time” intelligence from customers, competitors and employees.  CEOs must insist of themselves and others, that experience, not received opinion, will inform decision-making.

CEOs Need to Communicate Strategies Holistically to Transform Business

For today’s CEOs, the challenge isn’t just to learn about digital disruption and technological change. The challenge is to act upon it without isolating it, without making it a “parallel path for planning and investing.”  They can’t think of digital strategy as something separate from the rest of their strategies and tactics, even if they give it more import.  Rather, they must find a way not to mention “digital.” Instead, they must lead their organizations to think and act holistically when describing market forces, evaluating capabilities and seeking new ways of working. When confronting digital disruption, CEOs must not focus their organizations on a narrow response to digital technology and disruption.  They must, instead, incorporate new ideas and technologies into their efforts to transform organizational structure, business practices, culture and leadership, with the goal of creating an adaptive, learning organization.

CEOs Must Harness People if They Wish to Harness Digital Technologies

To help their organizations adapt, today’s CEOs must challenge their employees and themselves to understand customers’ needs and the power of technology to amplify customers’ influence on each other.  Technology provides valuable communication channels for both customers and employees, and CEOs must learn to use these channels to gain insights on what works, and what doesn’t.

CEOs, as chief learners, need to work to fill their organization with leaders of teams that learn to problem solve based on information and interaction gained collectively.  It requires rewarding thoughtfulness and creativity; but it starts with hiring people different from those you sought before.  Look for creative types, and for people with experiences different from those already represented in your organization.  If you hire the right people, they will seek ownership of problems and solutions.  Let them have that ownership and let them create the teams needed to enact those solutions, learn from them, and grow with them.  As Max DePree said long ago “we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.”

Greg Crandell

Greg Crandell

Greg Crandell provides strategy, market planning, business development, and management consulting to financial technology firms and their clients – Credit Unions and Banks. For more years than he wishes to admit, ... Web: queryconsultinggroup.com Details

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