CEOs: Evolve or face extinction

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Bosses who fail to embrace the new rules of leadership are doomed. By ROSS HONEYWILL

The CEO challenge in 2007

by Ross Honeywill

The days of the boss as Machiavellian manipulator are over. CEOs in 2007 need to be more in touch with ideology than idolatry. After all, no one’s kneeling anymore.

CEOs who fail to embrace the new rules of leadership will find it harder to attract and retain new talent or to get any kind of loyalty from their board.

It’s a management truism that leadership is critical as a driver of business success. The new news is that leadership must stand for something to become the sustainable fin slicing though the ocean of political or management mediocrity.

The traditional form of leadership was an outer-directed, problem solving boss setting the agenda for the team to follow and adhere to. The new boss is a beast of an entirely different nature.

Standing for something is not only important, it is essential. The late management doyen Peter Drucker said it is more important to do the right things than it is to do things right.

Leaders who know what to stand for, and then take their organisation in that direction, are becoming tomorrow’s business stars. Contrast this with so many of today’s so-called leaders who simply direct others how to do the right things within an existing framework.

The five tests of a leader are:

  1. It’s more important to do the right things than it is to do things right.
  2. Decide what’s essential, what you stand for.
  3. Assign a gender to your organisation.
  4. If you’re not talking, you’re not winning.
  5. Certainty is golden.

It’s more important to do the right things than it is to do things right

So often leadership focuses on what needs to be done to maintain the status quo instead of taking the time to consider if it is the right thing to do.

Take as an example the Onkaparinga Woollen Mills in Lobethal, South Australia. For decades the mills produced some of the best woollen blankets in Australia, renowned for their quality and comfort.

In the mid-1990s however, the woollen mills suffered a fatal business downturn and soon closed.

The managers at the Onkaparinga Woollen Mills knew how to do things right: they made beautiful blankets, they maintained the machinery, they motivated the salesforce to sell more blankets.

But they did not take the time to ask if, in a changing world, making blankets was the right thing to do at all.

The simple answer would have been, no. The mill’s managers failed to see the doona coming over the economic horizon, and the rest, like Onkaparinga Mills, is history.

Decide what’s essential, what you stand for

With so much happening every day, the core task of a leader is not to decide what to do, but rather to decide what’s important to the organisation and the world it operates in.

True leaders have forums where the organisation’s critical thinkers review goals and strategies. Without a decision-making framework however, every contributor expects his or her ideas to carry full weight, regardless of their relevance to the organisational strategy.

This is where leadership cuts in. Establishing what the organisation stands for is an essential part of that leadership.

Consider the charismatic Bono, lead singer of Irish rock band U2.

Bono has dedicated a large part of his life to humanitarian efforts. He works tirelessly to have first world countries cancel the debt of struggling third world nations, to reduce poverty in Africa and to boost the availability of drugs for AIDS treatment.

When Bono teamed up with Bob Geldoff to stage, in July 2005, the Live 8 concerts, coinciding with the G8 conference of the world’s most influential economic countries, it wasn’t just a series of well-planned and well-staged concerts.

It was a spectacular event that stood for something profound and immediate – it stood for the eradication of poverty.

Bono and Geldoff characterise the new leader: influential, focused, doing the right things, standing for something so clear that it communicates a simple message to everyone. And most importantly, it gets things done, makes progress, changes the way the world functions and behaves.

Or take a look at the rise and rise of Al Gore. Having “lost” to George W Bush in 2000, Gore crusades against climate change, and his movie An Inconvenient Truth, has already become the third-highest grossing documentary in American box office history.

Gore may again run for president or he may not. Certainly standing for something has made him more prominent and delivered him more credibility and influence than any other politician on earth. Bono, Geldof and Gore offer powerful messages to corporate leaders.

Assign a gender to your organisation

Much has been written about corporate culture with little or no reference to the gendered nature of an organisation.

Every organisation has distinctive gender characteristics and it is only by understanding them that a leader can truly define or redefine an organisational culture.

In our society, gender assignment happens to every child and that assignment in the vast majority of cases determines how that child grows and behaves in society.

Inspirational leaders understand the importance of organisational gender assignment. Many large organisations exhibit, for example, unmistakably male characteristics.

These are companies that value systems, documented protocols and fixed ways of behaving with limited room for creativity and imagination.

The people, both men and women, who work in such an organisation do so knowing they are protected by regulations and rules, that they are freed from the responsibility of making a decision and of getting it wrong.

Institutional decision-making leaves no room for individual responsibility. The ultimate example of such a male gendered organisation is the armed forces, however similar characteristics are found in many business organisations.

Conversely, female gendered organisations are often smaller and always flexible, creative and free of rules and regulations.

In a female gendered organisation, participants solve problems themselves, make decisions freely, innovate and rely more on inspirational moments than operational limitations.

Each person accepts and values personal responsibility. A good example is a marketing agency where myriad creative, financial and operational decisions are made at every level of the organisation with multi-tasking and job sharing the norm rather than the exception.

These characteristics can also been found in global brands with many of the new consumer electronics and computer companies organising themselves around loose yet effective structures in which personal achievement is lauded and rewarded.

Apple, under Steve Jobs, has developed not only a corporation that values personal success and rewards creativity, it also takes that positioning into the market with its iPod products and marketing that celebrates imagination, design and beauty.

Identifying the gender of an organisation helps leaders lead from the front, to become agents of change and to attract the right people.

If you’re not talking, you’re not winning

Good leaders are good talkers and good listeners. For those building a new business or bringing a new concept to market, there are two simple rules:

  • Tell a potential client something they don’t already know.
  • If they’re not talking to you, you’re not winning.

Great leaders know how to bring something new to others and how to make it understandable, desirable and attainable. They also know how to talk about it and how to engage and motivate others – both internally and externally.

Steve Jobs launches every new Apple product himself – and then puts it online for millions of individuals across the globe to see him one-to-one. He talks to the world and in doing so converts personal fascination into commercial results for Apple.

Leaders must talk constantly about the right things to do, about what they stand for, about issues that clarify the gender of their organisation. And they know that if they’re not hearing back from others, they’re not in the race.

Be quietly certain

One outstanding characteristic of leadership is certainty. Early movers are quickly recognised in the ranks by their level of certainty about topics under discussion or review.

This is not to be confused with dogma or force, the first to speak or the loudest voice. Certainty comes from a natural ability to evaluate, decide and express what is important or essential to the discussion. And given the confidence that comes with certainty, is frequently expressed quietly.

Much is made of the need for consensus in discussions of leadership, however the ability to listen and to respond with certainty is more of a signpost to leadership than any amount of effort to get “organisational buy-in”.

Just as there are few true leaders, there are also few who can be certain and right more times than not.

Damian Eales, head of marketing and financial services at David Jones, watched his older brother John lead the Wallabies to victory in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, the 2000 Bledisloe Cup and the Tri Nations Series, and to Australia’s first-ever series win over the British and Irish Lions. One of Australia’s greatest ever sporting leaders, John Eales is nicknamed “nobody” because “nobody’s perfect”.

The younger Eales, still in his early 30s, has played a central role, along with CEO Mark McInnes and CFO Stephen Goddard, in taking David Jones to a position of dominance in the fickle department store sector.

Eales deals fairly and intelligently with his team and external advisers, but always, having heard all sides, demonstrates complete certainty in his responses and decisions.

This is the new leadership democracy where each player has an equal voice, where the final decision by Eales demonstrates the kind of clarity and certainty that instantly dispels any dispute. Certainty is a golden rule of leadership.

Leaders understand the difference between leadership and efficient management. Management focuses on doing things right; leadership is driven by doing the right things.

It’s a simple choice: evolution or extinction.


Ross Honeywill ([email protected]) is co-founder of the privately funded consumer think-tank, the Centre for Customer Strategy, is an adviser to global brands and is co-author of NEO Power: how the new economic order is changing the way we live work and play (Scribe, Oct 2006).


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