03/09/19, Cate Nelson-Shaw

The Changing Role of the CEO

Intent Based Leadership, CEO, business consultancy

Here’s some worrying news for CEOs…The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, which samples 33,000+ respondents from 28 countries, found the credibility and trust of Chief Executives are at its lowest level ever. It has dropped 12 points globally to an all-time low of 37% – a worrying statistic for CEOs, Managing Directors and indeed Boards.

We could all point to business models and leadership styles that pay scant attention to building an effective top-down culture of trust and increasingly there is a sense this way of thinking is out of date and exposes businesses to undue risk. 

Consider, for example, the impact of digital technology on the power dynamic between business and customers.  Twenty years ago holidaymakers relied largely on travel agents to promote destinations, accommodation and activities for example. If the reality was a half-built hotel next to a motorway and a dirty pool they could complain to the on site staff followed by a letter of complaint to the travel agent. In return, they might get an apology and money off their next booking with them. In this instance, the travel agent, not the customer, held the power in the relationship. However, today’s technology means potential customers can try before they buy and get the unvarnished truth from previous travellers; and if travel is disrupted en route, they can keep everyone updated by the power of social media.

This transformation in the travel industry is being quickly followed across other customer-facing industries, giving the customer more choice and a louder voice.  Meaning that rigid structures led by a small number of top-down managers are becoming increasingly obsolete. More and more companies now understand the need to instil agility and responsiveness into their culture and structure, recognising the most important relationship in the business is not between the CEO and the Financial Director, Sales Director or Chair but the one between the client and the person providing the service or selling the product. 

So in some respects, one of the aspects which have changed least about the workplace over the last 100+ years is the approach to leading and managing people.  Whilst technology, working conditions and automation have transformed work, the approach to leadership has been much more incremental than transformational. We’re still largely stuck with the idea that there are Leaders and there are Followers, and that leadership is about a small number of talented people directing the masses towards a goal. It’s a belief that is rooted in the era of mass production when getting people to complete repetitive tasks to a consistent quality was king, and it is becoming increasingly flawed.

We live in a very different world and you simply can’t order people to be creative or flexible. So the role of the CEO needs to change and a modern job description should include the following:

In fact, along with a new job description, perhaps we should go for a new job title for the CEO – the Chief Enabling Officer. Be the change that you want to see in others…

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