New Thinking About Company Culture and Corporate Leadership

A review of recent literature on executive recruiting suggests a number of important trends and offers many useful insights on the new twists, turns and grades in the road to the top.

We know that different times and different circumstances call for different leadership skills. So when it comes to managing your own career, how do you prepare yourself to move up? What abilities should young would-be executives focus on developing as they choose companies, functions, and jobs? And what skills should working executives hone  as they strive to reach the next level? How does a company’s culture influence someone’s personal brand? How does a leader's personal brand influence a company's culture?

Those aren’t easy questions to answer. The trends vary by function, geography, and industry -- and, of course, by company. And though we can definitively identify the skills that companies seek now, pinpointing those that will be useful in the future is unavoidably speculative. Nevertheless, after interviews of numerous top managers about the requirements for senior leaders past, present, and future, some clear signals about how top-level leadership roles are evolving, have been observed.

Of course, the questions that are posed above are all good questions, because they get to the at the heart of the issues. They are the questions on which we want to focus our attention. First there are the questions on the leaderships brand and corporate culture, because we feel that these two concepts are are co-dependent. Culture is the way employees describe where they work, understand the business, and see themselves as part of the organization. For a business, building a strong company culture will not by itself guarantee success. But, it is a key in attracting talent–and talent determines a business’s success. For an employee, it is critical to assess a company’s culture early in the job search process – you don’t want to be a Type A person in a Type B company.

Think about it; What companies have created brand-based corporate cultures that have improved their ability to recruit top talent? When you ponder this question, Apple and Google stand out. Apple values people who are perfectionists, who have a vision of the way things should work and a passion for making them work just so. Google looks for people who are adept at solving complex problems, then lets them solve them.

What do you think employees, especially recent college graduates, look for in their leaders?

I’d like to think they are looking for people who can help them learn and advance, people who are great role models. However, I fear in many cases, they are looking for a friend, an simulacrum of a parent/professor relationship. In this economy, they may just be looking for a job and not thinking much about what managers and leaders have to offer.

You say, “The worst mistake a leader can make is to assume that he or she is a leader simply through the act of taking on a new title or role.” Why is this so problematic?

It is often thought, that because someone has been given a title, a role to play, that they are qualified. In most cases that’s a bad assumption. For companies it’s a gamble, a bet that the board of directors has made that their newly appointed Chief Executive officer can take the qualities and skills they possess and grow into an exemplary leader. It becomes a problem in two ways:

1. The person isn’t able to rise to the occasion, and

2. The company wants to cut its losses, rather than invest in helping the person grow into  leadership.

Most leaders are made, not born. If you find a born leader, stick close.

Why do you think emotional intelligence is lacking in today’s leaders (EQ Vs IQ)? Do you think this is more or less pronounced than in the past?

People are sometimes selfish. They want to make a million dollars before they’re 30, they want to be in three startups that flip out for huge multiples, they want to be partners in the law firm. They don’t want to invest in the introspection and reflection required for emotional intelligence. Everyone wants that corner office, a "B'mer" and a condominium. It’s too hard to do that and care about the people around you.

What traits are the ones that appear to be essential to becoming most effective as a top-level corporate leader? Who exemplifies these leadership qualities?

One strikingly consistent finding in the research is that once people reach the highest leadership roles, technical and functional expertise matters less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals. Chief information officers need to know how to create business models; chief financial officers, how to develop risk management strategies; chief human resource officers, how to design a succession plan and a talent
acquisition structure that will provide a competitive edge. In other words, the skills that help you climb to the top won’t suffice once you get there. Top-level executives end up having more in common with their executive peers than they do with the people in the functions they run. And today members of senior management are expected not only to support the CEO on business strategies but also to offer their own insights and contribute to key decisions.

The first theme that we noticed; is that requirements for all the top-level roles have shifted toward business acumen and “softer” leadership skills. Technical skills are merely a starting point, the bare minimum. To thrive as a C-level executive, an individual needs to be a good communicator, a collaborator and a strategic thinker, plus the trend toward a general business orientation over a functional orientation appears to be very
strong. As an example: a Chief Executive (CEO) would now count on a Chief Information Officer (CIO), for instance, to weigh in on a discussion about expansion into a new market and how the firm’s systems could support that expansion. What would the challenges be? What would be the long-term impact of the IT expenditures required to support the expansion? The CIO would be expected to provide answers to these kinds of questions.

Secondly, we have observed that;  the types of skills that are increasingly in favor are: strong communication, empathic listening, collaboration, and trust building. One skill that will be of foremost importance will be the ability to elicit trust as the face of the company. That will include facility and credibility with policies and initiatives involving social responsability.

Going forward, senior executives will not simply manage their own business areas; they will be active members of the firm’s senior leadership who advise the CEO on key decisions. As one executive recruiter put it, “The C-level person today needs to be more team-oriented, capable of multi-tasking continuously and leading without rank, and able to resist stress and make sure that her/his subordinates do not burn out. And they need to do all of this with a big smile in an open plan office. In other words, we’re looking at a whole new breed of top executive.”

So, it comes right back to emotional intelligence. Those who we describe as leading from the heart (such as: Howard Schultz of Starbuck's, Tony Hsieh Zappos CEO and Reggie Aggarwal the CEO and Founder of Cvent) seem have it. They are self-aware, in control of themselves (self-managing), aware of others socially aware) and they possess social skills -- they care about others, they can handle ambiguity, they care about context, they are open to what is happening around them. A successful leader must be of strong character and seek knowledge endlessly. From now on leaders must be creative, passionate, disciplined, and courageous people who still make the time to care for others and they must always seek to  unite ethics and integrity, with business savvy and the bottom line.