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The rise of the humble CEO

Discover the new wave of “humble” chief executives who lead by listening and last the distance thanks to innate creativity and curiosity

The rise of the humble CEO

It shatters every cliché and hardwired notion about what it means to be a boss.

Forget the image of a chief executive working on a complex matrix of management tools; or worse, roasting employees for poor performance and demanding better results.

Consensus has emerged among global business leaders at the recent World Business Forum in Sydney on what makes for successful and effective modern CEO.

The image is of a humble, people-savvy motivator who uses positive culture change to achieve an organisation’s transformative goals and growth objectives.

Listen up

Melbourne Business School’s Professor Geoff Martin says CEO attitudes are changing as business leaders become more focused on the power of people skills.

“The thing that strikes me about the CEOs I interviewed at the World Business Forum in Sydney is what good listeners they are – they drip humility,” Professor Martin says. “We’re starting to see a whole new skillset we want in a CEO. You want someone with the emotional intelligence to stop, with all of your top management team, and say, ‘What do I need to do to bring employees along for the ride?’”

Professor Martin explains it’s a long way from the post-World War II days when CEOs and business managers limited their interaction with staff. It’s also different to the complex management consulting tools.

Learn from your customers

What matters is a human touch that extends throughout the organisation.

Author and founding partner of consultancy Peppers & Rogers Group, Don Peppers, who also graced the stage at the forum, said a good example was how a positive, people-centric culture could impact on customer service.

When you look at companies that are perennially successful, it’s very hard to find a common denominator – except all have extremely strong corporate cultures.

He explained that with more automation and digital service channels, customers were less likely to pick up the phone to call for help. “On the other hand, the more you successfully automate, the more important those call-ins are going to be,” he said. “Now, when the customer calls in, they’re going to be talking about something very important to them, something difficult. They’re going to require more engagement and empathy.”

Another example was Telstra, he said.

“Look at the cultural transformation of Telstra under [CEO] David Thodey, where Telstra became one of the world’s largest users of Yammer,” Peppers said. “Linking employees together in order to bring out their humanity and unleash their humanity – you don’t have to demand employees like customers, good employees want that to happen – you have to use technology to get out of employees’ way.”

This trend of positive corporate cultures, led by humble CEOs is a global trend.

“When you look at companies that are perennially successful, it’s very hard to find a common denominator – except all have extremely strong corporate cultures,” Peppers said.

Gain insight through social media

Social media is already having a huge impact on the way companies are communicating with customers and partners, and it turns out that the new wave of CEOs is also highly connected online.

“The customer is now 100 per cent in charge of communication with the company and the marketing department is not – pure and simple,” declares author and business management guru Tom Peters, who wowed his World Business Forum audience with a passionate and lively presentation. “Your image and the response is being shaped on various bits of social media. It’s not the sort of thing where the social media guy ought to bring the CEO a summary report – you need social media so you can understand what’s going on.”

Peters believes that social media is an honest and authentic way for senior executives to maintain contact with staff, customers and suppliers, preventing the detachment that leads to poor decision-making.

Connected customers also figure as one of the primary motivators for change at the top: profits and “decency” are tightly connected, Peters said.

Prepare for the future

London Business School Professor Lynda Gratton says another dynamic is shaping the emergence of humble CEOs. New technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence will redefine and transform the employment market. As a result, Gratton believes many mid-level analytical jobs will simply disappear.

But it’s not all bad news.

“I predict that the sort of jobs that will be valuable and be very difficult for AI [artificial intelligence] or robotics to take over are jobs that require what humans do best – creativity, innovation, complex collaboration, hypothesis forming, and so on,” Gratton says.

For business leaders, and CEOs in particular, Gratton’s message is that this people-centric, humble attitude must be accompanied by excellent interpersonal communication skills and creativity. In the same way that robots have taken over routine physical activity in the 20th century, Gratton believes artificial intelligence will take over routine analytical roles in the 21st century. The jobs left to humans will be those requiring communication skills and the ability to solve problems in an unpredictable environment.

“You have to learn how to change,” Gratton says. “What we know about transformation is that it’s enormously helped by diverse networks. You would be wise to start building networks of people who are different to you, because somewhere in that difference is the person that you could become.”


Idea in brief

The modern CEO needs the emotional intelligence to stop and ask what they need to bring the whole company along for the ride

  • Use technology to support culture – don’t let it get in the way
  • The wrong corporate culture can be destructive
  • Don’t underestimate the influence of a great leader in creating a great culture
  • Great leaders are great listeners

Join the ranks of the leaders who listen with Telstra Collaboration Tools.

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