The Evolution of the Executive: Leaders Scramble to Keep Pace with a Rapidly Changing World

The Evolution of the Executive: Leaders Scramble to Keep Pace with a Rapidly Changing World

By Dana Wilkie

​A century ago—about the time that the concept of the "company executive" took root in America—the typical CEO was practically a monarch.

He (and back then it was almost always a "he") wielded near-absolute authority with the help of a relatively tiny team. Very likely, he'd "grown up" in the organization, working his way up from lower positions to the top ranks, which gave him intimate insight into nearly every company operation. 

He probably had deep roots in the community where his enterprise was headquartered—worshipping at the same church as his subordinates, sending his children to the same schools, attending the same local fairs—which meant he forged close bonds with his workers.

Today, America's C-suite looks more like a democracy than a monarchy. Today's CEOs may have the final word, but they collaborate with a host of other executives—CHROs, COOs, CFOs—and their power is far more tempered by shareholders, boards of directors and even their own employees than in times past.

The era in which we now live and work is very different from the industrial era that characterized the 20th century until at least the 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the formation of the European Union, the rise of China, the digital revolution, globalization, climate change, the social revolution in many countries, the financial crisis in the first decade of the 21st century and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic have cumulatively created an environment that is essentially a new world.

"The confluence of major developments over the past 30 years since I first took on an executive role has transformed our sector and those of all of our clients," said Michael Lurie, a partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "This has led to major shifts in needs, interests and possibilities for all stakeholders—customers, employees, investors, suppliers and broader societies ... all at a greatly accelerated rate of change."

The Neil Postman Clock

​Think of a clock that represents a total of 3,000 years, with each minute on that clock denoting 50 years.

Neil Postman, an American author, educator, media theorist and cultural critic, imagined such a clock in 1969 to illustrate just how rapidly change was happening in our culture.

If one were to track the trajectory of this entire world's civilization in a single hour, this theory went, then the telegraph, photograph and locomotive arrived on the scene a mere three minutes ago. The telephone, rotary press, motion pictures, automobile, airplane and radio would have come about two minutes ago. Television appeared in the last 10 seconds. The computer in the last five seconds. Communications satellites in the last second. The laser beam—perhaps only a fraction of a second ago.

Keep in mind, Postman put forth this theory more than five decades ago. Before there was such a thing as the Internet or the iPhone. Before Facebook, Instagram or TikTok. Before we began regularly defining generations, and their demands, by terms like "Millennials" or "Generation Z."

Nor did this theoretical clock account for recent social or cultural changes—the increase in people publicly identifying as LGBTQ, for instance, or the development of the #MeToo movement. Or the way social media amplifies racial unrest and political upheaval.

The Postman Clock, Revisited

That is the clock that today's executive is up against. And according to theorists, that pace of change will occur in such increasingly shorter and shorter intervals—be those changes technological, cultural, political or otherwise—that it will require CEOs of tremendous agility and creativity to keep up.

What type of leader can grapple with that type of change, in all its speed and immediacy?

In nearly 30 interviews with executives at companies across the nation—from small firms to global ones, with newly minted CEOs and those with decades of experience—SHRM Online found key indicators of what's required of today's executives, and what will be required in years to come.

Less About Power, More About Partnership

​When Michael Coar first ventured into mortgage loan transactions more than two decades ago, he had a pretty firm grasp of the technology his company, the McLean, Va.-based VirPack, needed to sell newly closed mortgages to investors.

But when the mortgage meltdown hit in 2007, he had to reimagine VirPack, and that meant handling loans from origination to closing. He quickly discovered that he had to delegate several important tasks to lower-level directors who could oversee the many complex pieces of his enterprise—from infrastructure to databases to networking to security.

"Twenty years ago, I could be the sharpest tool in the shed and lead from the top down," Coar said. "But now the business world's become so complex ... you really need to rely on trusted people" to keep a business afloat.

‘It’s not so much about power now, it’s more about partnership. Years ago, when a CEO wanted to make a change, he did it and it was done. Now, it’s more of a conversation, more about getting buy-in, because if workers don’t buy in … people wind up quitting.’

—Mari Kemp, senior vice president at Ease,
which provides HR platforms for benefits administrators.

​Many executives can relate to Coar's experience and to the importance of surrounding themselves with talented executives who have expertise they may not, or outsourcing jobs too complicated or time-consuming for in-house employees. That means ceding control, and that leads to flatter, less hierarchical organizations, where power is more diffused across a company than it might have been decades ago.

"It's not so much about power now, it's more about partnership," said Mari Kemp, senior vice president at Ease, which provides HR platforms for benefits administrators. "Years ago, when a CEO wanted to make a change, he did it and it was done. Now, it's more of a conversation, more about getting buy-in, because if workers don't buy in … people wind up quitting."

One Executive’s Evolution

Andrew Rawson, chief learning officer of TraliantWhen Andrew Rawson founded his company six years ago, he already had several years of experience as an executive at other companies.

Now the chief learning officer for Traliant—which provides companies with online sexual harassment prevention and DE&I training—Rawson can share a thing or two he learned about how his leadership style has changed.

With a skeleton staff back in 2016 when he launched Traliant, Rawson and his colleagues were looking to hire what he calls "great athletes"—people who could do a lot of things well but weren't masters at any one job. "That's good at the start, because people have to do everything," he explained.

But as the business grew—it now has about 100 employees who all work remotely—Rawson realized that his hires had to be athletes with specific skills, like sprinters or pole vaulters.

With that new hiring strategy, Rawson also realized that he could no longer master each component of his business, especially as technological advances made running the business more complicated. Instead, he had to give his employees a long leash, trust their expertise and be confident they could deliver without too much oversight.

"Years ago, I might have said, 'Let me see the outline, then let me see the storyboard, and then let's tweak here and give me the mockups,' " Rawson said. "Then I realized that this wasn't just the Andrew Rawson show. I realized when you hire the right people, they should know how to do their jobs better than I do. And if they aren't smarter than you, then you don't hire them."

That's a scenario that's played out over the past decade in many C-suites, Rawson said. And it's led to such a flattening of organizations that lower-level executives and managers tend to have far more say—and, hence, power—when it comes to company decisions.

That new power—coupled with communications advances like social media—also means lower-level workers are more vocal about workplace demands, whether that's flexible hours, remote work, better benefits, recognition, advancement, or even a company's stance on social or environmental issues.

"I can't say that decades ago a whole lot of executives were focused overmuch on just how happy their employees were," Rawson said. "Being remote with 100 people, even if we wanted to be micromanagers, we can't be. I learned that I can't take care of all of the work; I can only take care of our people.

"That was just my personal evolution."

Recently, the company surveyed workers and asked what company policies inspired them to stay productive and keep working at Traliant.

"They said, 'You tell me what to accomplish, and then you leave me alone. So yeah, I love it here.' "

Flatter Organizations

​Organizations also tend to become flatter because of generational demands and social media advances. With a simple computer search, a worker or job applicant can discover what salary he or she should be earning compared to his or her counterparts in the marketplace, whether a company backs up its "sustainable energy" talk with action, and if current and former employees feel happy and valued at the organization.

As a result, lower-level workers increasingly have a voice in company decisions.

If they don't like what they discover about their employer or what they experience at work, they can walk—or they can take action that quickly reverberates around the globe, as some 80 Apple employees did last summer when they wrote an open letter to CEO Tim Cook objecting to his return-to-the-office mandate. Their argument? "We feel like the current policy is not sufficient in addressing many of our needs."

A few months earlier, over 500 employees of Google wrote an open letter to Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, demanding the company stop protecting harassers and provide workers with a safer environment.

"I can't fathom employees, two years ago, writing letters to Tim Cook, or Google employees challenging the CEO," said Peter Messana, CEO of Searchspring, which builds search technology for online retailers' websites.

‘If you aren’t evolving, you’re in trouble.’

—Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer
of the Society for Human Resource Management.

​What does this mean for the company executive?

Increasingly, it means he or she is now required to be more transparent—about the organization's finances, its investments, its social and environmental responsibility.

Executives are now keenly aware that who they hire, groom and promote—and whether their decisions track with the expectations of an increasingly diverse workforce—will be monitored closely not only by their boards, but also by an increasingly watchful public that's attuned to social media and can turn a company's fortunes in an instant.

It means that concepts like "empathy" and "work flexibility"—terms hardly common in corporate circles several decades ago—have now become part of corporate America's DNA.

In other words, to succeed as an executive in today's work world has a lot to do with relinquishing the role of the monarch.

"If you aren't evolving, you're in trouble," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management. "When I talk to a leader who says, 'I've been doing the same thing for 20 years and it's worked,' then I think, 'You're already behind.' "

Technology and the Executive’s 24/7 Expectation

​Envision this: You're a busy executive with a pressing question for one of your directors about a product soon to be launched. You send her a Slack message asking for an answer. Fifteen minutes go by. Thirty. Maybe an hour. There's no reply.

Damian Birkel, founder and executive director of Professionals in Transition.You may be the most hands-off and trusting of executives, but in the back of your mind, you're wondering: Is she shopping when she should be working? Maybe taking her kids to the playground when she should be available for you?

Technology has transformed how any executive conducts business. And communications technology—whether it's e-mail, text or online platforms—often creates a sense of immediacy and an expectation of rapid response.

"Perhaps the greatest change over time is that 24/7 availability is now assumed," said Damian Birkel, founder and executive director of Professionals in Transition, a nonprofit dedicated to helping individuals who are unemployed and underemployed prepare for and find jobs.

Birkel doubts there's a company leader out there who, in this age of remote work and electronic communication, hasn't at some moment questioned just how much a subordinate is actually working while at home or in a coffee shop.

"The 24/7 assumption [of availability] is very intrusive," Birkel said, for both executives and their reports. "As a leader, I need to be accessible at all times via multiple communication channels—cellphone, e-mail, social media. [Today] I have had two unplanned business meetings [arranged] where the person on the other side just assumed that I'd be ready to address their issue."

Michael Coar, chief executive officer and chairman of VirPack.Michael Coar, whose employees almost all work remotely, has experienced this in reverse. It hit him one day—after he'd e-mailed a subordinate, didn't receive an instant reply and started to get angry—that it was time to adjust his expectations.

"I've had to train myself about this," admitted Coar, the CEO and chairman of VirPack, a McLean, Va.-based provider of document management and e-delivery solutions for the mortgage industry. "If she didn't respond in 30 seconds, I'm like, 'What the hell?' You have to realize that this communication mechanism—being so instant—creates disruptions. When you're working on some project and you have a bunch of issues, and you can instantly get somebody, that's wonderful, [but] what you're not paying attention to is that you just interrupted four people 12 times to get your answers."

Birkel said that unless checked, leaders can wind up using modern communications tools in such a way that it "creates an atmosphere of fear." He once worked with a director who would shoot e-mails to staffers at 11:30 p.m. and expect an answer before midnight. Those who failed to respond instantly were often publicly humiliated, he recalls.

"This type of management by fear is highly stressful and while it may produce short-term results, in the long term, it can be the root cause of catastrophic illness" for some workers, Birkel said.

Jordan Bishop, founder and chief executive officer of Yore Oyster.For Jordan Bishop, modern business communication has forced him to trust his workers as long as they deliver.

"There's been a lot of talk about managers who are micromanaging teams remotely, using software to detect keystrokes and [uncover] how much they're actually working," said Bishop, the founder and CEO of Toronto, Canada-based Yore Oyster, a personal finance website whose employees all work remotely. "I strongly suggest against that, because it just creates such a toxic work environment. As a leader, you're showing that you don't trust your team, and you're setting yourself up for failure. I say to my team, 'I don't care what hours you work—in the middle of the night or early in the morning. Just get the results we're looking for.' "

As for Coar, he said he's forced himself to sit back and think objectively if he can't get ahold of an employee immediately.

"You have to tell yourself, 'Their productivity is good. Their communication is good. Our work relationship is good. Am I making an evaluation or forming an opinion that's really arbitrary?' Now, as I pull up that chat window, I ask myself, 'Do I really need to know this right now?' "

More from the Series

​Read the second installment in the series: The ‘Professional Executive’ Emerges.

Read the third installment in the series: How DE&I Evolved in the C-Suite.

Read the fourth installment in the series: The Empathetic Leader.