“The skill of managing better talent – to influence rather than dictate – has become a much more powerful leadership characteristic than we’ve seen before,” he says.
At the core of this approach is the ability to listen. So says Randall Peterson, professor of organisational behaviour and academic director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School. He reports that one of the best indicators of success for CEOs is whether their colleagues consider them good listeners.
Accompanying this is an unprecedented rise of another quality: agreeableness, characterised by Peterson as “go along to get along”. Over the past three decades he has observed this style evolving from the old-school autocratic approach.
“It’s now tipped over towards the more agreeable side, mainly as the challenges of collaboration have become more complex,” observes Peterson, who adds that listening skills are key to resolving disputes. “How a CEO manages conflict is critical to their long-term success.”
Arguably, agreeableness works against a key personality trait that nearly all CEOs display: dominance, which is also a good indicator of those most likely to become bosses in the first place. What Peterson has found particularly interesting, though, is that today’s most successful CEOs are ones with lower scores than their peers on measures of dominance. “This suggests that there’s a sweet spot: you have to be dominant enough to be noticed and get your own way at times, but not so much that you stop listening to others and become a bulldozer,” he says.
Nicola Wensley, a partner in executive appointments at Page Executive, reports that influencing skills are featuring more than ever on the wish-lists that her company receives from clients seeking CEOs.
“A key lesson that a lot of leaders have learnt during the Covid crisis is the importance of empathy and authenticity in keeping employees engaged and motivated,” she notes. Managing by influence requires CEOs to engage with staff at all levels like never before, Wensley says. They must even be prepared to share stories of their own humanity, such as “how they’ve overcome personal challenges or balanced the pressures of work and home life”.
While they’re becoming more open with their colleagues, they are also serving more than ever as the public face of their organisations, she adds. Blue-chip CEOs in particular have become “accountable for so much more than the financial performance of their companies. Everything they do and say is scrutinised. At times, their words and deeds will have an impact on their firms’ share prices.”
The modern CEO must also be able to assimilate the challenges of disruptive change. Once the Covid crisis finally ends, the most significant developments to stay on top of are likely to be rooted in technology, ESG and geopolitics.
For Wensley, technology is no longer a function that CEOs can simply delegate. “The shift is not so much to have a business strategy that’s supported by technology, but almost to have a technology-led business strategy,” she argues.
To achieve this, CEOs will need to listen to their chief information officers more closely than ever if they are to spot new opportunities and chart new strategic directions for their businesses. It also means that today’s effective CEO must be highly curious about tomorrow’s emerging trends.
Freebairn, who has served as a non-executive director on a plc board, says that CEOs have to “be on the pulse enough to know what’s happening and good enough to know whether these are developments they should be following or not”.
And tempting as it might be, this is not simply a question of following the data, warns Rory Sutherland, vice-chair of ad agency Ogilvy UK, who observes that the sheer volume of information available to CEOs can prove counterproductive.
Much of this material is “often highly unrepresentative of what’s really important”, he argues. “An awful lot of what is important probably needs to be captured in words rather than numbers… By putting something in a spreadsheet, you’re in danger of actually losing more than you gain.”
CEOs must always take account of where their intel is coming from, especially internal data, as the sources may have ulterior motives for editing the material that reaches the top. This is why leaders “need channels to lower levels of the organisation, where they’ll get truly unsifted information, not stuff that has been filtered through the middle management”, Peterson says.
If to lead is to listen, the best CEOs will exemplify another trait that’s long been identified as important in effective leadership: humility.
“To lead the people, walk behind them,” wrote the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. Two and a half millennia on, his advice still holds true. You can probably hear better from there, too.