Where did it all go wrong for Ross McEwan’s leadership ambitions at the Commonwealth Bank?
McEwan was the CBA’s head of retail banking for the past five years, and was considered a near-certainty to replace former chief executive, Ralph Norris, when he retired last year.
Instead, Ian Narev, another insider who was head of group strategy for two years, landed the job.
Moving from the C-suite into the CEO role demands a delicate mix of abilities, political nous, focus, chemistry and some luck, the experts say.
If the board wants to maintain the company’s current strategic direction, they will promote an internal candidate.
In any succession plan, the board will want two or more internal candidates groomed for the role. “That will give the board some choice around personality,” says Right Management’s regional general manager, Bridget Beattie.
For the aspiring leader, the question is how to be the chosen one.
- 1. It is more than competence
Although competence (in an operational, not advisory, role) is a given for any leadership candidate, the winning candidate must appear often in the board minutes for “all the right reasons” says Paul Lyons, the CEO of listed recruitment company, Ambition.
“It is making sure your business division, your operations, are consistently in the board minutes for good reasons, beating budgets performance numbers, tacking problems, developing good people and products, and delivering good service,” he says.
With so many demands on the modern C-suite executive, losing focus is a risk, says James Mason, the managing director of Mindshop, an executive coaching and training company. “Anyone in a senior role will find themselves pushed to be a leader, visionary, mentor, good on financials, and social media has just accelerated the demands,” he says. “Instead of trying to be everything at the same time, executives look for the role that gives them the chance to play to their strengths: finances, strategy, innovation…”
There is some luck here, too. “The chair will be looking for someone who complements their skills,” Beattie says. For go-getters with time up their sleeves, developing new skills and experience can overcome the problem of too close a match of skills with existing board members.
- 2. Chemistry and trust
The ability to forge enduring relationships with the board will determine the future of a leader, says lobbyist Jody Fassina, of JF Consulting. While many people saw the former Coalition Treasurer, Peter Costello, as the natural heir apparent for the Prime Minister’s role, the backbenchers did not support him in the end. Why? Perhaps because “John Howard was the consummate networker with the back bench,” Fassina says.
The delicate issue for the ambitious is how far to go. “There is a difference to being seen to be a corporate climber or a consummate networker,” Fassina says. “It is a fine line.”
Lyons says informal access to the board varies across companies, but there are formal opportunities that help. “In any dealing with the board, if you have to report on a specific issue, it is making sure in your meeting that you are presenting in a positive way, with gravitas, giving them confidence,” he says. “Some companies have free access to the board; if yours does, take full advantage of that.”
“But you don’t want to be overplaying your hand; come across as a normal, confident person – not passive and not aggressive.”
- 3. Strategy
The board will appoint a leader who can deliver on the strategy that they believe is the right one.
“Deliver on the outcomes the board is looking for,” Mason says. “Understand what they are trying to achieve and take that into your areas of ability.”
The successful executives will challenge the board in matters of strategy. “It is not about turning up, it is about asking the right questions, that really get to the root cause of the issues. Ask the challenging questions.”
Again, luck plays a part. Strategies can change from year to year (and faster) and an executive who was the right fit in the lead-up to a leadership change can miss out when the wind shifts.
- Stay professional with the professionals
Most companies provide “360-degree” feedback, allowing executives insight into how they are perceived by the ranks above and below them. “You want your HR manager reporting on you as a capable person with leadership abilities,” Lyons says.
There is no need to schmooze the head-hunters, however, Beattie warns, “It is all about due process. Head-hunters do not want to give one executive a better chance than another.”
- 5. It is a numbers game
When it comes to the board, it is a matter of quantity as well as quality, the experts say. Lyons says: “If it were me, I would be trying to get around to everyone on the board, so when your name comes up, you have a large number of people speaking in your favour.”
- 6. If you miss out, leave
If the ducks don’t line up, and despite a comprehensive effort, the job goes to a rival, it is usually time to make like Ross McEwan, and move on, Beattie says. “It is very difficult for the individual to stay in an organisation when they have said, ‘I want to be the boss, I am ready.’ Leaving is the honourable act because it can lead to stained working relationships.”