With the presidential election just around the corner, there is rampant speculation on who the next president-elect’s team will include, with talking heads on 24-hour news channels opining on likely cabinet picks for each party’s candidate.
It is widely understood that the job of U.S. president is far too demanding for any one person to execute without a top-notch supporting cast, and the same concept applies in the corporate arena.
That’s because, for organizations that plan to be successful in an increasingly complex and demanding global business environment, that apex of the corporate pyramid that used to be reserved for the CEO has now expanded to accommodate a team with a range of relevant skills. The crucial skills required at the top can’t reasonably be expected to reside in one individual. Think instead of the CEO as an orchestra conductor, someone who identifies and nurtures talent and works through others to accomplish strategic goals.
If the CEO is the conductor, one section of the “orchestra” may comprise the needed financial skills, led by the CFO, while another provides human resources acumen, still another legal expertise and so on. The point is that one leader, regardless of how gifted, cannot possibly be solely responsible for setting direction and executing strategy.
Most CEOs we know have healthy egos, but they are also generally smart enough to understand their limits. They are confident in their abilities and what they know, and secure enough to surround themselves with the best talent they can find, understanding that it isn’t the role of the conductor to play every instrument in the orchestra, but to extract an outstanding performance from each musician.
The best CEOs also understand their limits when it comes to their own tenure and plan for successive generations of leaders, including those who will replace them as CEO.
While overall accountability for succession planning lies with the board, it’s the CEO’s job to help determine short-term successors—if needed—and to instill a development culture that focuses on growing leaders at every level. That means generations of leaders are continually being developed from the bottom up, so that individuals are equipped to not only fulfill their own career goals but the organization’s strategic goals.
Here’s a brief overview of how CEOs perform this critical work:
1. Sending a message. Every move CEOs make is thoroughly scrutinized. They have to consciously send a message, loud and clear, about the importance of leadership development to the success of the long-term strategy. Not surprisingly, becoming known as an academy company can be a key factor in attracting the best and brightest employees, who will be future leaders, early in their careers.
2. Aligning on the strategy. The most effective boards work in conjunction with CEOs for once- or twice-yearly strategy sessions, which are usually tied to leadership development plans, because the two are inextricably linked. Strategic objectives will determine the sorts of leaders the organization will require to deliver on strategic objectives successfully.
3. Developing critical competency profiles. With a common understanding of the strategy, the CEO, with the help of the CHRO and others, can start to build out the skills and experiences that will be required for the leadership team and the layers below. Direction spelled out in the strategy, such as plans to move into new markets and develop new products, as well as other considerations regarding what the company will look like in the future, will be used to create competency profiles for future leaders.
4. Supporting development. The strategy and competency profiles can then serve as the underpinnings for more specific development plans for future leaders. The CEO will remain engaged throughout this process so he or she can report regularly on progress to the board and also ensure promising talent is carefully nurtured and gaining the training and experiences future leaders will require.
All of this is a far cry from the old notion of the CEO in a distant corner office, disconnected from the rest of the organization. But most capable CEOs now recognize that the concept of a leader as a lone individual is an antiquated concept.
The most powerful, effective leaders today, whether presidents or CEOs, work through others—empowering them, inspiring them, and enabling them to contribute to the best of their abilities in ways that align with larger organizational objectives.