As the business world changes, so do its leaders. New technologies disrupt decades-old business models, and young employees seek opportunities and values in their careers that don’t align with traditional expectations. As these changes unfold, many companies are being forced to rethink what the ideal CEO might look like. Alberta Venture spoke with Josh Bersin, the principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, a research and consultation company that focuses on HR, about the skills that the next generation of CEOs will need to possess and what that means for businesses. Future CEOs take note: You need new tools in your kit.
Alberta Venture: How are the roles of next-generation CEOs changing?
Josh Bersin: The ability to build a meaningful and purposeful culture is the job of CEOs. In the past, they were expected to be forceful, directive drivers – telling people what to do, holding people accountable, setting high standards and creating a competitive environment. Our research tells us that forming a culture and retaining talent is top of mind for most CEOs today. Fifteen years ago, if you gave somebody a performance appraisal and it was bad, they would take it as a message that they needed to work harder and perform better. These days, that same person might say, “You know what, I don’t even like working here.” If they are a high performer, or if they have rare skills, that kind of interaction is going to disengage them and perhaps encourage them to leave. So there’s a whole new model of management taking place where high-performing companies are really focused on coaching, development, empowerment and alignment – and keeping those people focused on a central mission through shared values and culture. Great CEOs need to be charismatic leaders, but they are also keepers of the culture. That said, CEOs still need to hold people accountable, find funding, make sure the financials are on track and hire people – none of that has stopped. But those are some of the new characteristics of great CEOs.
AV: Has the job of CEO become more challenging?
JB: I think it’s always been challenging. I just think it’s challenging in a different way. It’s always been difficult because it’s a lonely job; until you’ve been a CEO you have no idea how lonely it is. Everybody gives you advice and you never know what to believe. So I don’t think it’s harder but I do think it’s different.
AV: You’ve written about how young people expect to be moved into senior positions at an increasingly fast pace. Can you elaborate on that?
JB: This idea that you need to spend 30 years at a company to be a great CEO is less true today. There are many examples of people who are running large, high-market-cap companies in their 30s. These are really capable young people who figured things out very quickly. So there needs to be a willingness to put younger people in senior positions faster.
AV: Do you see any tension arising as a result of that? It seems like the older generation might prefer a more traditional role of “paying your dues.”
JB: It depends on the size of the company and its growth rate. Great CEOs know their business well, so they know the customers, they know the products, they know the people and they know the industry. If you look at some of the fastest-growing companies out there, many of their CEOs are younger. Young people tend to have more creative ideas, because they haven’t been in this exact situation before and are learning on the fly. I’m not saying that youth is important or unimportant; I’m just saying people need to be sensitive to the fact that just because you’re seasoned doesn’t mean you’re a good candidate for CEO.
AV: For people who are trying to advance in a managerial or executive role, how important is it to have a specific knowledge base as opposed to having a little bit of knowledge about a lot of different subjects?
JB: You’re not going to rise to the senior level of a company unless you have some depth in some area of the business, whether it is sales, marketing, finance, engineering or whatever else. I’ve had people say to me that they don’t need general managers anymore. Instead they need managers who can run their operations well and help make good decisions. Also, you have to have financial acumen and business acumen; you have to understand that your job is to make money. It’s not just about operating and running things. There are a lot of CEOs who love their businesses but fail in the operations. Lastly, CEOs need to have good people skills. They can’t solely focus on the business; they also have to focus on the people. If the CEO is not waking up in the morning thinking how she can make people more productive, more engaged or how to hire better people, there is a problem.
AV: How will the performance of CEOs be reviewed in coming years?
JB: The financial aspect will always be a big one. But if you look at all of these business magazines out there, every one of them has a listing for the best places to work. CEOs get scrutinized over whether their companies are on those lists. So even if you’re the CEO of a financially successful company, if it’s not considered a great place to work and you have a high turnover, it hurts you in terms of your career.