Chief Enabling Officer: how the role of CEO is evolving

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CEO turnover in the UK is now as high as 16.3%, according to PwC research – higher than any country in the world other than Brazil, Russia and India.

The pressures on CEOs are high – and the role itself is fast-evolving. So what does the role mean in these complex times, and what are the particular issues for accountancy firms?

‘Google of knowledge’

Cindy Williams is a business coach who works regularly with CEOs and is co-founder of Keys4Success. “For today’s CEOs, the pressure to portray themselves as a ‘Google of knowledge’ has been significantly increased.

They feel they need to know absolutely everything – from GDPR to security. These are things that would previously have been dealt with by the management team – whereas now they feel they have to have their fingers on every button.”

Working on the ground

“What’s changed is the move from strategic overview to getting more engaged with the nitty-gritty of running the company.”

In response, Williams’s training response “is to teach CEOs to have a hands-off approach and run the company through the executive board.” But tackling this always-switched-on, granular problem is a serious issue for today’s CEOs.

Didn’t it always used to be the case that the CEO was the strategic thinker, and it was the COO who ran the actual day-to-day? “Yes, sometimes. But I also work at the other end where the level of micro-management has really become a problem.”

“The reality is that you only have one pair of hands. You might have hundreds of different employees and it’s impossible to give them all the personal attention you might like. CEOs who want to be involved in great detail when it comes to recruitment, for example – it will tie up all your time if you do that.”

Focused priorities

For Chris Daly, Chief Executive at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, “succeeding in business means leading change – building the case for it, and creating a culture so that it can be implemented. For a CEO to enable change or lead they must have a willingness to listen and hear new ideas from other leaders within the business. Or those three letters will just be viewed as a badge rather than a title that commands respect.”

For Daly, “the values of collaboration are certainly as important to the CEO today as they ever have been. However, the business landscape is changing fast, and CEOs need to work increasingly hard to be at the forefront of the emerging future.”

What does the role mean in today’s complex times?

“The needs of both businesses and customers have certainly changed significantly over the last ten years, and with it the role of the CEO,” Daly says.

“However, strong leadership in times of change means being both proactive and reactive to the market you operate in, ensuring above all that your products and services meet both customer and business demands.”

Meanwhile, “with technological advancement often overtaking the ability of businesses to adopt it, CEOs must be attuned to the digital agenda and ensure it is a priority. Couple this with rising geopolitical risk and increasing competition from disruptors, CEOs must ensure they are willing to adapt in line with complex market – and customer – demands.”

Becoming a strong CEO

A strong CEO will have a clear idea of the vision and values of the company, but also know how to structure the organisation around that vision.

“In days gone by, business leaders fed information down the chain of command. Today’s senior leadership teams are creating a space for knowledge sharing and fostering continuous development,” Daly argues.  

“If you look at accountants we can tend to be quite conservative and slow to change,” says Mark Telford, Director at Telfords Chartered Accountants.

“This reactive nature arises because we are in a comfortable position where we don’t have to chase work continually. If you do a good job, and do it on time, those clients will come back; and they’ll also recommend others.”

Telford points out that one of the things making accountants distinctive from other service industries is that “there’s often no comparable – your customer don’t know what other accountants are like.” All this means that there can be resistance to change from both the client and the accountant.

Time pressures and solutions

However, “with technology at the moment being so massively disrupting, the CEOs of accountancy practices need to recognise this,” Telford says.

“There’s a huge job to do in terms of changing the mind-set of the workforce to accept a new way of working. Millennials and Generation Z have a completely different outlook and approach to life than someone who started work between the 1970s and the 1990s.”

The workplace has to appeal to those people, Telford says, and it’s these shifts in working patterns that perhaps create the greatest challenges for CEOs in the future.

For Cindy Williams, the older generation is changing its expectations and desires as well. “We’re finding now that CEOs don’t want to work forever as many of them did in the old days, and they want to retire quicker. A couple of decades ago, a CEO might start two or three companies in their career and the focus was on achieving steady growth. Nowadays, CEOs look at their exit strategies much earlier in their careers.”

What motivates the CEO?

Finally, a challenge for many CEOs can be having the ability (not to mention the time) to sit back and contemplate what they are actually running the business for.

“Do you really want to be in the office all the time, or would you rather be with your family? When you are with your family, are you always switched-on and taking your phone – or phones – on holiday?” The life of a CEO is incredibly stressful, Williams says.

“It used to be the case that CEOs needed to demonstrate how busy they were. The new generation of CEOs are trying to say that they work less, but work smarter. However, I’ve seen no evidence of that happening – they work as hard as they always did.”

Whilst there are techniques to handle that: “delegate more, check emails no more than twice a day, work out what’s life and death,” being amongst the most obvious, being a CEO is perhaps more a way of life than a career choice. It attracts a particular kind of personality type – and is likely always to be much more than full time.     

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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