Composure | 3 things that keep CEOs up at night and what to do about them…
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3 things that keep CEOs up at night and what to do about them…

Disruption, competitors, market conditions , among others, are some of the most common causes touted for sleeplessness among CEOs. These are external forces, and often future-oriented. There are other causes; these lie closer to home and are much more immediate.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review highlighted the internal concerns CEOs have around leadership and culture. Here are the top 3 concerns, and our reflections on them.

1) 68% acknowledged they weren’t fully prepared to take on the CEO role.
On the week of the AFL Grand Final in 2017 an article was published in The Age about the leadership transformation of Richmond Football club head coach Damien Hardwick, from a “distant micromanager, into the new-age 2017 coach of the year who emotionally stripped himself bare to his players”. The article outlined elements of his leadership journey and the key moments that shaped his approach. One powerful message resonates throughout: ‘vulnerability’.

As an organisation, the Richmond Football club was struggling in 2016 and performance had been low for a long time. Hardwick received feedback from players and officials about his tendency to micromanage and his one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. The club sent Hardwick on “a short leadership course at Harvard, which his colleagues believe opened his eyes to his lack of authenticity when the going had become tough”.

The shift was surprising. In the lead up to the 2017 season Hardwick and club captain Trent Cotchin led the way in inviting the group to share vulnerabilities, fears and limitations they identified in themselves. Each player was given 5 minutes to do the same over the course of the pre-season, from tales of family, to grief, doubt, love and everything in between, the club’s players and coaches exposed sides of themselves they never had before.

This led to the co-creation of a powerful culture “ underlined by self-awareness and self-acceptance of their faults”. Importantly, it led to an incredible improvement in performance on the field and eventually, a premiership win.

It is normal to feel underprepared for a leadership role. Impostor syndrome – a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments, and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud” – is common across all professions. The real question is how do you respond. Do you double down on confidence and the ‘fake it until you make it’ theory, or do you share your doubts and insecurities with the people around you? The answer is a combination of both that we would call ‘confidence through vulnerability’.

“For CEO’s ‘not feeling prepared’ may take many forms. Acknowledging our thoughts and fears reveals a human side that can be deeply compelling to those around us. True confidence and influence, are amplified by vulnerability, not diminished by it.”

If you feel unprepared, normalise the feeling by sharing it with those around you and allowing them to step up and support you. This allows them to see the human in you and share the human in them.

2) 50% said driving culture change was more difficult than they’d anticipated.
Having worked with executive teams across a wide range of industries, one of the most common reasons CEOs find culture change perplexing is an unspoken belief that they can dictate a set of values, and outsource the creation of a culture based on these values to their “People & Culture” team. This approach is flawed to its core.

Dr Larry Senn, a pioneer of corporate culture, outlines the four challenges below as the reasons why culture change initiatives fail:

  1. It is an HR initiative and is not led from the top. HR has a critical role in making culture change work, but as General Joe Robles, CEO of USAA, the company with the highest customer loyalty in America, says, “I’m the chief culture officer.”
  2. The process doesn’t create a deep personal commitment to change. It is too intellectual and not transformational. It may create some understanding through such things as 360 surveys, but does not produce transformational “ahas.”
  3. There are too many disconnected initiatives, and lots of activity, but culture is not clearly managed as a strategy. Every system and communication process needs to be aligned with a clear definition of the desired culture, which covers the Essential Values.
  4. It is not taken from top to bottom in a way that creates momentum and mass. Cultures have antibodies and lives of their own. The process has to have the feel of “the train is heading North, and you better get on.”

CEOs must view culture as the engine that drives their business. If the engine lacks power, it doesn’t matter where you steer the ship by rethinking your strategy, you won’t go anywhere fast.

A strategic, systematic, and well resourced approach to culture-change yields great returns. This will often involve CEOs recognising they need expert help, just like they do for their legal, accounting, technology, or marketing needs.

3) 47% said that developing their senior leadership team was surprisingly challenging.
Consider how most executives and senior leaders find themselves in their positions; it usually involves a successful career based on a deep technical expertise in a certain area, followed by positive reinforcement in the form of consecutive promotions for outperforming their peers. This reinforced individualistic-performance develops into a pattern of behaviour that conflicts with the attributes of an effective leader. To be successful as leaders, they must relearn and rewire their understanding of what leadership means.

The starting point is getting deeply comfortable as leaders to explore what we don’t know (refer to point 1 of this piece). Javier Pladevall, CEO of Volkswagen Audi Retail in Spain, mused:

“Leadership today, is about unlearning management and relearning being human”.

The development of people is a distinctly human experience, and the capacity of leaders to motivate and inspire change is fundamental to this. You can’t enforce development through systems and processes, you can enable it, inspire it, and role model it through a deep commitment to investing in people.

In summary

  1. Normalise vulnerability. True influence and confidence come from sharing how you’re feeling.
  2. Culture cannot be controlled or outsourced; it can certainly be shaped and influenced. Take time to deeply understand how culture works and engage expert support to work with its complexity.
  3. Most leadership teams are made up of experienced technicians/novice leaders. Invest in the development of your team’s leadership skills. These are often counterintuitive and require a thorough process of relearning.

 


This piece was written by Alon Cassuto and Tom Canny from Composure, a leading consulting firm specialising in behaviour change and helping leaders and organisations perform through the power of people and culture.

Written by:

Alon Cassuto, Senior Consultant

Tom Canny, Consultant

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