Chief executives today navigate a world unprecedented in complexity and unpredictability. Their success hinges on adaptability, authenticity, and continual growth in the role, even more than on preparation beforehand, according to The CEO Report.
The role of CEO is structurally unique and preparation is therefore always incomplete, the report notes. Embracing a mind-set of continual learning and curiosity is necessary for CEOs to cope with the uncertainty around them.
Based on in-depth interviews with more than 150 CEOs from around the world and across business sectors, The CEO Report is one of the most comprehensive, in-depth studies of CEO leadership capabilities. It identifies a suite of integrated skill sets that today's senior-most leaders leverage to help them grow and thrive in a business environment marked by constant change and dissonance of competing stakeholder interests.
"Senior business leaders must operate in a new normal of unpredictable change in a hyper-connected world," said Tracy Wolstencroft, Heidrick & Struggles CEO and President. "Volatile business climates can provide a competitive advantage for those who are able to lead and inspire their teams through this uncertainty."
"This research captures what it is to be a CEO today and the significant leadership challenges CEOs face. A picture emerges of leaders who are changing and developing as quickly as the environment in which they operate," said Professor Peter Tufano, Dean of Saïd Business School. "This rich and detailed study gives us a deeper understanding of the needs of executives at the top of organizations and suggests ways in which we can support them in their personal development."
Contextual intelligence is not enough today. CEOs need to continuously adapt to changing dynamics impacting every aspect of their business. "Ripple intelligence" – a critical finding in the research – is the ability to see the interactions of business contexts like ripples moving across a pond. It enables CEOs to envision how trends and contexts may intersect and change direction, so they can anticipate disruptions, make time to plan, and protect against being blindsided by unexpected events. Ripple intelligence also makes CEOs aware of their own impact and how it may influence contexts that might otherwise seem remote and unconnected.
"Ripple intelligence is a significant early-warning system that CEOs are using to navigate the uncertainty and unpredictability of today's world," said lead researcher Dr. Michael Smets, Associate Professor in Management and Organisation Studies at Saïd Business School. "The report will help CEOs understand the dimensions of how to amass information and perspective so they can better navigate the ripples they can see, and anticipate those they can't."
The other critical capabilities identified in The CEO Report are:
- The S3 of Change – The ability to determine not just the speed of change, but also the real and perceived scope and significance to the organization and its stakeholders.
- The Power of Doubt – The transformation of doubt into a powerful decision-making tool is a critical skill among CEOs today. They leverage doubt similar to elite athletes' utilization of nerves: as a source of focus and insight when harnessed constructively.
- Adapting authentically – Facing relentless pressure for change, CEOs consider adaptability a requirement for the role. Yet 'authentic leadership' is also a demand and thus the need to balance between being ever adaptable, while remaining true to their personal sense of purpose, and thus their authenticity, is critical.
- Finding balance – Faced with competing, yet equally valid, stakeholder demands, CEOs increasingly must navigate through paradoxical choices, including between "right … and right," both for themselves and their organizations. Balancing these paradoxes gives CEOs the foundation to turn organizational trade-offs into win–win situations.
- Continual growth and renewal – CEOs feel that their success today hinges on continual growth in the role, even more so than on their preparation beforehand. They recognize that the role is structurally unique and preparation therefore always incomplete. Embracing a mindset of continual learning and curiosity is necessary for CEOs to always be ready for the uncertainty around them.
"The research has given us a deep understanding of how CEOs navigate these markets," said Valerie Germain, Global Managing Partner for Functional Practices at Heidrick & Struggles. "It is clear that they strive to find opportunity among the challenges, for both business and personal growth. There were many consistent leadership traits despite the diverse experiences of this wide-ranging group."