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Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 2019, Vol. 26(2) 141 –149 © The Authors 2018 Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions DOI: 10.1177/1548051818793338 journals.sagepub.com/home/jlo
Many scholars have and continue examining what it takes to excel as a CEO. Research describing the knowledge, competencies, values, and skills looks daunting espe- cially when reviewed with an eye toward professional development. Developing CEO traits and competencies is the conceptual equivalent of climbing Mount Everest to excel at serving as the corporation’s face in the 21st-cen- tury. CEOs not only have a direct impact within and across organizations but also on the quality of work lives, the stability of communities in which we live, and on the health of our economies and planet. While recognizing the challenge, this study provides a qualitative assess- ment of the core attributes essential to being successful as a CEO and the communication strategies needed to facili- tate transformational leadership and effective organiza- tional functioning. This investigation provides guidelines on what it takes to be a successful CEO in the 21st cen- tury. But perhaps most important, this investigation pro- vides both guidance and perspective from both past and present CEOs who have firsthand experience in meeting the challenges posed by a rapidly changing intercon- nected world.
Physical, Emotional, and Intellectual Attributes. The role neces- sitates physical stamina, high energy, the capacity to rest when needed, to work hard without becoming addicted to the work, and recognizing the importance of maintaining good physical health (Burrus-Barbey, 2001). Physical stam- ina must be matched with emotional strength. The capacity to display both passion and conviction when communicat- ing the organization’s vision must be undergirded with the ability to manage anxiety, stress, and even depression (Bruder, 2013). Furthermore, the capacity to demonstrate gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion when necessary are important dimensions of CEO management styles in high- performing organizations (Freed, 2014). Maintaining com- posure and displaying solid nerves build an image that Burrus-Barbey, 2001) describes as one “ . . . who is not easily destabilized.” There are many typologies of traits
793338 JLOXXX10.1177/1548051818793338Journal of Leadership & Organizational StudiesGordon and Martin research-article2018
1The Gordon Group, Inc., Chicago, IL, USA 2DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA
Corresponding Author: Donald Martin, College of Communication, DePaul University, 14 East Jackson Boulevard, Chicago, IL 60604, USA. Email: [email protected]
The 21st-Century CEO: Intrinsic Attributes, Worldview, and Communication Capabilities
Vicky Gordon1 and Donald Martin2
Abstract This article analyzes interview data from 20 CEOs—drawing on their combined experiences to illuminate both the challenges that will face CEOs in the 21st century and the knowledge, competencies and skills they will need to succeed. The results of the qualitative analysis suggested the importance of a Global IQ, the ability to recognize talent, both the knowledge of global strategies as well as both vision and execution. CEOs must possess both global experience and an acute understanding of cultural differences to build a global company. The 21st-century CEO must have global talent acquisition capabilities that not only embrace diverse populations but also understand the cultures represented in the workforce. The CEO must be able to manage global growth and be comfortable in a broad cross- section of international markets and settings. And finally, they must possess the breadth necessary to be visionaries but understand the details that contribute to successful organizational functioning. The analysis of data not only reinforces traditional values that remain important but also identifies how perspectives on organizational functioning must change to embrace the future.
Keywords 21st-century CEO, global leadership, CEO challenges, leadership development, talent acquisition, diversity and leadership
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associated with the role of a successful CEO that include being curious, inquisitive, open minded, perceptive, intui- tive, and creative to name a few (Burrus-Barbey, 2001). But perhaps more important, scholars have identified ways of thinking that have contributed to effectiveness in leadership at this highest level. There is a resurgence of interest in sys- tems thinking as a cognitive process supporting transforma- tional leadership. Scholars argue that CEO’s should conceptualize and maintain a holistic view of the funda- mental organizational functions and resources that create value and maintain organizational competitiveness (Ewalt, 2004). Researchers argue that the CEO must have a deep understanding of how enterprise functions work together as a system—suppliers, partners, products, services, custom- ers, and workforce (Larson, Latham, Appleby, & Harsh- man, 2012; Latham, 2013). Fanelli, Misangyi, and Tosi (2009) argue that the CEO must be a critical thinker— always questioning the status quo and able to balance both ideological and pragmatic thinking.
Scholars also stress the need for CEOs to not only be stra- tegic thinkers and continue building those skills on an ongo- ing basis—by studying the success of comparable industries and being familiar with their internal operations (Verespej, 1997). Some have also identified the underlying attitudes, motivations, and values critical to organizational transfor- mation Kelly, 2004). The importance of a team orientation, being able to draw effectively on past experience while engaged in current decision making and problem solving are noted. The CEO must be constantly drawn to facts and infor- mation to increase knowledge of the importance of ongoing change, the advancement of technology, and the linkage between organizational resources and achieving organiza- tional goals (Moghaddasi & Sheikhtaheri, 2009).
Perhaps most important, scholars underscore the impor- tance of the CEO’s recognition of the power of organiza- tional culture. Performance cultures are values driven, embracing core corporate values and recognizing corporate culture as foundational to organizational transformation (Dunn, 2004). One study of corporate values emphasizes the universal need for trust, honesty, and authenticity with the CEO modeling those values critical to organizational effectiveness (Freed, 2014). And Burrus-Barbey (2001) acknowledges the importance of dynamism, a multicultural orientation and open-mindedness, but perhaps most impor- tant, the capacity to connect corporate culture with organi- zational success.
Communication Knowledge, Competency, and Skill. The very nebulous and abstract term “communication” is portrayed by scholars as central to the success of any given CEO, and to any successful effort to bring about organizational transfor- mation. Researchers look at the individual, his or her com- munication style, communication relationships that include the CEO, group dynamics, one-on-one communication
within and between organizational levels as well as the stra- tegic communication of policy and directives.
Charisma and credibility are identified as key dimensions of CEO effectiveness in communication style (Fanelli et al., 2009). Both are difficult to define and challenging to acquire. Charisma is influenced by one’s referent power and likeabil- ity. One’s credibility is influenced by perceived trustworthi- ness, authoritativeness, and dynamism (Whitehead, 1968). As a dimension of credibility, dynamism—the capacity to display both intellectual and physical energy as a communi- cator is critical to CEO effectiveness.
The communication roles played by the CEO extend well beyond that of a public communicator of business strategy or directives. Some scholars argue that the CEO should communicate more informally than formally— stressing the importance of frequent conversations with managers, facilitating the flow of information among top managers, building interpersonal ties, and developing a social network—within and across formal organizational structures (Hilger, Richter, & Schaffer, 2013). Building an informal network necessitates walking around, talking to people, asking questions, and personally attempting to dis- cover and understand the human resources that are at his or her disposal (Dunn, 2004; Johnson, 1994; Verespej, 1997). In many top-performing organizations, CEOs will person- ally facilitate meetings pertaining to organizational devel- opment themselves rather than delegating that responsibility (Latham, 2013).
In informal conversations, researchers suggests that the CEO should communicate clearly, listen carefully, respond to, and provide honest feedback. By using these communi- cation behaviors, the CEO creates an overarching image of openness and accessibility as a communicator. Scholars also argue that when enacting a public communication role, the CEO should work on using emotive and charismatic lan- guage making certain that visionary statements—represent the organization as a collective inspired by and sharing the same values (Ban & Marshall, 2013, Fanelli et al., 2006).
Ban and Marshall (2013) further argue that openness strate- gies and removing internal silos are essential to organizational effectiveness and must become an organizational priority. As the face of an organization, a CEO must use social media, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram reinforce openness and accessibility while personally participating in interactions with customers and key constituencies (Walden, Siegel, & Javidan, 2006). These actions in and of themselves communicate both openness and accessibility. Impression management facilitates CEO branding and the CEO brand should reflect the key val- ues inherent in the organizational mission (Bendisch, 2013).
While scholars have provided thorough descriptions of the key intrinsic attributes influencing CEO effectiveness and an overview of the important communication skills and strategies needed to be effective—in this investigation, the authors wanted to highlight the voices of both present and
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recent past CEOs in examining what it takes to be an effec- tive CEO in the 21st century. In doing so, we will be able to see what constitutes new demands on the CEO role and acquire insight into how the communication demands on the role have changed and what strategies are recommended in light of those changes.
Twenty CEOs who were listed in Fortune Magazine as rep- resenting “America’s Most Admired Companies” agreed to be interviewed for this investigation (see appendix). All participants waived their right to anonymity and agreed to have quotations from their individual’s interviews inte- grated into our discussion of key attributes and communica- tion strategies. All interviews were recorded and transcribed. In analyzing the interview data, we followed established qualitative procedures (Berg, 1998; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Taylor & Bogdan, 1984; Corbin & Strauss, 2014). Open coding was used as the interview data analysis process. During open coding, interviewee comments are first tagged with conceptual labels, and then grouped according to simi- larity of theme, with the themes being derived inductively from the actual words and phrases used by the participants in providing illustrations of their respective experiences. Current and recent CEO’s have a unique line of sight into the next generation of CEO leadership trends. From their vantage point, they see the leadership qualities enabling senior executives’ success. Insight into the qualities defin- ing the next generation of successful corporate leaders emerged through an analysis of the interview data.
Qualitative Analysis: Results
Qualities for the Next Generation of CEOs
The analysis of data yielded two central categories: First, transcendent qualities that remain foundational to leader- ship effectiveness across all time and all leaders; and sec- ond, those unique qualities that are essential for the next generation of CEOs—including the knowledge, competen- cies, and skills that a CEO must either possess or develop in order to be successful in the 21st century. Comments and discussion drawn from our CEO interview data provide insight into their thinking in both categories.
Transcendent Qualities Values. It quickly became apparent that CEOs associate
values with their perception of success at the highest lev- els of leadership. The CEOs agree that an individual lead- er’s credibility is at the core of the power to inspire others. The CEO needs to exhibit on a daily basis the values and principles that help create the company’s promise. “Value and principles stand the test of time . . . they’re amazingly
powerful,” said William D. Green, former Chairman and CEO of Accenture and currently Chairman of the Board for Backoffice Associates. The CEOs stressed that both the company’s and the leader’s behavior and words must match or there is no credibility given to the CEO and com- pany. “It doesn’t do any good to say we have an open-door policy if somebody needs a battering ram to get through the door,” said Costco’s James D. Sinegal, Cofounder, Director, and former CEO. Mr. Sinegal went on to assert that the leader has to demonstrate those values with “fire in the belly” passion for the business. Others should be able to not only see the leader’s values in action but also feel the leader’s passion. “You’ve got to really care about the business,” Mr. Sinegal said, and added, “You’ve got to bleed, hemorrhage anytime things go badly . . . I think you can’t really excel as an individual or as a company unless you have deep-seated passion and love what you do.” Patricia A. Woertz, Executive Director President and CEO of Archer Daniels Midland Company (retired) said, “ . . . if you don’t have passion for what you are doing, then it’s difficult. . . . If you love your work, you have it made. You have to lead from your values.”
CEOs concurred pertaining to caring and passion not only for the business but also for those working in the busi- ness. “Leadership is about being ethical, it’s about having courage, it’s about communicating and being truly caring about your people,” said Gary C. Kelly, Chairman, President and CEO, Southwest Airlines.
Character. The CEOs agreed that character as a leader- ship quality is timeless and universal. Character is at the core of being an effective and credible leader. The CEOs agreed, integrity is the defining element of one’s character. John W. Rowe, Chairman and CEO of Exelon Corporation (emeri- tus and retired) explained, “You either have integrity or you don’t.” “Integrity starts with being consistent and being grounded to a core set of beliefs,” said Frederick H. Wad- dell, Chairman of the Board and former President and CEO, Northern Trust Corporation, and added, “For me, integrity is about putting others first.” Mr. Sinegal explained, “if you sacrifice your principles, there’s no second chance. If you miss your numbers, you get a second chance, but you don’t if you sacrifice your principles.”
Leadership orientation. The theme “values-based leader- ship” consistently emerged in discussions of leadership. The participants indicated that integrity starts with a leader’s personal values which become reflected in the company’s values. The test is how consistently their actions and words parallel and reflect the organizations’ values during difficult times.
Allstate’s Tom Wilson, Chairman, CEO and President, called it moral certainty:
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“I think moral certainty is understanding that . . . there’s a code of humanity that you need to stick to, that trust is given to you because you will do what’s right for those you lead or the organization you lead.”
The CEOs said personal values are what guide leaders and provide direction in the toughest of times. “It is such a complex world and things are changing so fast. . . . I think inherently [it’s whether] a person [has] a compass that guides them in these very turbulent times,” said Brenda C. Barnes, former Chairman and CEO of Sara Lee Corporation.
Qualities for the Next Generation
While a leader’s character was identified as a timeless fun- damental—basic “table stakes” that anyone who expects to be considered for a CEO position must bring to the game. Essential leadership qualities identified for the next genera- tion of CEOs included Global IQ (Global experience plus adaptively), recognizing talent, global strategies and execu- tion, founder vision with the muscles to execute, high- velocity problem-solving prowess, ability to be inspiring and influential, and 21st-century communication skills.
Global IQ. The CEOs said that global interdependence is the reality of the day and a far cry from a world of self-suffi- ciency. CEOs must have global experience and an acute understanding of cultural differences to build truly global companies. Mr. Bill Green of Accenture argued, “Globaliza- tion is here to stay and understanding of the global economy, the diversity of people around the world every day becomes more essential.” “The first challenge is to become better citi- zens of the world,” said Frederick W. Smith, Founder, Chair- man, and CEO, FedEx Corporation, and added, “As we gain new customers from around the globe, it’s important that we learn about those customers and their cultures, their values, goals, business practices and so forth.”
A leaders’ global IQ has two components—global expe- rience plus cultural adaptability. “Leaders need the ability to have true global understanding. It’s also having a cultural barometer, cultural resonance, and that, to me, is going to be more and more important in the future,” said Coca-Cola’s Mr. E. Neville Isdell, CEO and Chairman (retired).
As Mr. Green of Accenture put it,
“We’ll be moving to places where in order to be really distinctive (will require) having a values and principle-based organization, not policies and procedures-based organizations and running them horizontally as opposed to vertically—running them in a network sort of way where they’re a confederation of business that really solve the equation of how do you be globally efficient and at the same time locally responsive.”
Indeed, the global business challenge for leaders is enor- mous, and the global competition will continue to increase
and expand. It’s the next generation leaders who must be experts in dealing with these global dynamics. Global expe- rience combined with multicultural sensitivity enables a leader to know how to adapt his or her business for success.
“You are going to have to sort of airlift yourself into India or airlift yourself into Botswana and be able to forge partnerships and work with people to help you distribute your products and services,” said Ivan G. Seidenberg Chairman and CEO, Verizon Communications (retired) and added,
“so you are going to have to operate in a climate where no one looks like you, speaks like you, thinks like you, and you have to figure out a way to transform yourself and your company into multiple personalities so that you can operate in a global environment.”
Recognizing Talent. CEOs must have global talent acquisi- tion capabilities. “Acquiring the right people in the right location with the right skill set and understanding what the company’s doing is a huge challenge,” said Northern Trust’s Mr. Rick Waddell and went on to say, “We have to get our- selves to the point where the acquisition, development, and retention of talent on a global basis are integrated with the business.”
One of the key elements that skill set involves are the new demographics that corporations face. “The biggest challenge is embracing diversity . . . being comfortable in rooms of very diverse populations and knowing diverse cul- tures and understanding those cultures,” said Andrew N. Liveris, Executive Chairman of Dow DuPont and CEO and Chairman of the Dow Chemical Company and added, “The global business challenge for leaders is enormous and, and the global competition will continue to increase and expand. It’s the next generation leaders who must be experts in deal- ing with these global dynamics.”
Employees with these talents will not be easy to come by. “Intensity of competition will increase dramatically. . . . The degree of competition will be intense and the fight for talent will be intense . . . we’ll see global companies from every part of the world,” said Robert W. Lane, Chairman and CEO, Deere & Company (retired).
Global Strategies and Execution. A Global IQ is required for a leader to develop and execute real-time global business strategies. “Managing global growth and being consistent and driving the execution on a global basis is a huge, huge challenge for the next set of leaders” said David B. Speer former Chairman and CEO of Illinois Tool Works.
“The next generation of leaders has to be very comfort- able as global thinkers, comfortable in a variety of interna- tional markets and settings,” Mr. Speer said, and added, “Multinational companies that are headquartered in the U.S. can no longer be viewed as American companies with
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foreign operations. I think that’s going to be a huge chal- lenge, because many companies today—their cultures are still American-centric.”
“In the past, global was described as ‘I was strong in the U.S., I’m strong in Europe, and I’m strong in parts of Asia,’ which usually meant Japan and Taiwan and maybe Singapore,” Mr. Speer continued,
“…today it’s really being strong in a whole lot of areas that 10 years ago wouldn’t have been on people’s radar screens. So, global means to be able to develop growth strategies in those regions of the world that are appropriate for those regions.”
Given the current wave of American nationalism in gov- ernment, the challenge is even greater. Global business real- ity stands in stark contrast to negative political rants covering immigration or trade. “We look upon the world through U.S. lenses,” said Dow Chemical’s Mr. Liveris. To be successful,
“…the next generation of leaders is going to have to overcome the challenge of their backdrop, the media and the politics of their home country, and truly bring in the perspectives of diverse populations from around the world on how they run their corporations for success.” (Dow Chemical’s Mr. Liveris)
Mr. Liveris goes on to assert, “The successful CEOs of the future will be the ones who are well informed, know the business inside and out, and know the next steps to take.”
The most dramatic global change and challenge for CEOs of U.S.-based corporations is the world’s changing economic dynamics. Mr. Livieris of Dow Chemical went on to state,
“For over 50 years, we’ve seen the United States be the number one economy in the world. The next generation of CEOs may see the U.S. move to number two or, more critically, China move to number one. I think that’s going to be very fascinating to be a CEO of a U.S.-based corporation if that happens, whatever your sector is.”
Vision and Execution. The CEOs believed that the next gen- eration of chief executives need not only strategic abilities to see the future but must also know the nuts and bolts of the business. “It strikes me we are going back to the future,” said Dow Chemical’s Mr. Liveris and added,
“At the turn of the last century, as America built corporations, I think those CEOs back then clearly . . . had an owner mentality. They had the breadth that enabled them to be… visionaries. But, also, they could . . . work the details.”
According to Mr. Rowe of Exelon, “CEOs simply have to know their companies; they are going to need the capac- ity to understand it up and down, left and right, backward
and forward.” “You’ve got to be focused on the business and not distracted by the trappings of the office,” said Northern Trust’s Mr. Waddell who went on to say,
“Getting down two, three, four levels into the organization and really understanding what that plant, that division that group, that individual is really dealing with in a very detailed way is going to distinguish the good CEO from the outstanding CEO. You really have to sweat the details.”
Verizon’s Mr. Ivan Seidenberg said, “The more hands-on you are, the more you know of your business, the more levers you can pull about how you get where you need to go right now” Mr. Seidenberg went on to say, “The CEO has got to be able to sit right there and help the organization mobilize its ideas and deliver it out to your public, your customers,” Similarly, Mr. Skinner, Executive Chairman Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., and former Vice Chairman and CEO of McDonald’s Corporation stated that CEOs need
“. . . in-depth knowledge of their business and must be . . . good strategic thinkers and they have to be able to lead execution . . . the fact is—nothing is ever successful until after it’s executed.”
High-Velocity Problem-Solving Prowess. Speed and complexity, driven by technology, are changing the skill set for CEOs. The next generation of leaders will need to have high-veloc- ity problem-solving prowess. They will need to be able to think, work, and execute real-time in ever-accelerating timeframes. “Speed is absolutely essential,” said Stephen P. Zelnak, Jr., Director and former Chairman and CEO, Martin Marietta Materials and went on to say,
“…people who are linear in their thought processing, the way they approach problem solving, are greatly disadvantaged. I think you’ve got to be able to be very flexible and nimble in your thought process. And if you’re not, you’re simply not going to be able to move fast enough.”
Gregory Q. Brown, Chairman and CEO, Motorola Solutions, said CEOs must possess a “deep comfort with speed and technology. So, when I think about the next gen- eration of leaders, as fast as things move, they’ll have to deal with more speed, more complexity, and more variabil- ity in individual cultures and globalization.” “Complexity is the enemy of speed,” noted Verizon’s Seidenberg and said, “so the issue for us is how to get the entire company to mobilize around breaking down complex problems and complex activities into manageable bites that work in the marketplace and then being faster than your competitors.” Meeting this challenge takes resiliency, said Sara Lee’s Ms. Barnes, “It’s that resiliency, it’s that ability to respond quickly it’s having that talent pool that (let’s you) seize the
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opportunities and move (instead of being) entrenched (in) a culture that doesn’t allow it.”
Inspiring and Influential. The combined ability to inspire and influence is a must have leadership competency for future leaders, the CEOs said. Clearly leadership is not just about command and control anymore. “If you want to know if you’re a leader, turn around for a second. If no one’s follow- ing, you’re not leading,” said Deere & Company’s Mr. Lane. “I think the best leadership situations are those where you really can’t command; you’re influencing, persuading” advised Lane.
To inspire, leaders must have the ability to move people to take extraordinary actions. It’s about engaging people’s hearts and as well as their heads. “If you listen well you understand what your employees are doing, understand what your customers may need, you understand what issues you have and then you can do someth