The ‘Professional Executive’ Emerges

The ‘Professional Executive’ Emerges

By Dana Wilkie

​Shortly after Dick Burke took over immigration-services provider Envoy Global in 2015—fresh from having run a successful apartment-finding business—he decided to create a new line of work: helping immigrants move their families to the U.S.

He hired new employees to launch the service, soon discovered his vision wouldn't pan out, and had to fire those workers about a year later.

"So, this total [outsider] hires a bunch of people and has to fire them," said Burke, who described that year as "very difficult for me." "[Employees] were critical. They were not trusting. They were like, 'Who is this guy?' I was brought in as a professional CEO, and I hadn't built up a reservoir of goodwill."

The "professional executive"—unlike company leaders of decades past—may not have grown up in the organization, working his or her way up from lower positions to the top ranks. He or she may not have roots in the community where the enterprise is headquartered. This executive may not have even come from the same industry.

Instead, today's executive is likely to have come from outside the organization—hired not so much for familiarity with the operation or its workers, but more for connections, social capital, strategic mastery, and ability to anticipate change and turn on a dime to accommodate a work world that's rapidly changing.  

"They are akin to politicians—crafting a public image about the company," said Timothy Quigley, an associate professor of management at the University of Georgia whose doctoral dissertation examined the role of the company executive going back many decades. "They're being told to go out there and make big decisions, take more risks, turn more knobs, twist more levers. And so, the decisions [executives] make today have more impact than they did years ago."

That type of executive, said McKinsey & Company partner Michael Lurie, "is a major shift for leaders and requires a significant evolution of capabilities—and most importantly, mindsets."

"Organizations have been going through major transformations: from the traditional, siloed command-and-control system of the industrial era to a more open, agile and human-centered form of organization," Lurie said. "A new kind of leadership is needed, going beyond traditional management to a more servant-leader model, where leaders take on the roles of visionaries, architects, coaches and catalysts."

The CEO of Yesteryear vs. the CEO of Today

More Like a Sports Team, Less Like a Family

​Jerry Davis is a professor of business administration and sociology at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. The emergence of the "professional executive," he said, has had many repercussions in the workplace.

Not only do their tenures tend to be shorter, he points out, but they also understand that they—and their employees—now operate more like a professional sports team than a family.

"You're not a member of a family; you're a professional athlete," Davis said. "We're going to pay you incredibly well, but you're not going to live here forever. Athletes know that if they get injured, they're gone. If they don't play as well, they're gone. You don't fire family members. You do fire athletes—and coaches, if they don't perform well."

If this is true, that today's executive is less like the patriarch or matriarch of a family and more like the coach of a professional team, then he or she has "a very different relationship" with employees, Davis said.

"Coaches are on the ground with [their athletes], interacting, in the scrum with the team, analyzing their performance."


In the Scrum

​Burke certainly discovered that after signing on at Envoy Global. After he was forced to fire workers, he realized that to regain the trust of those remaining on his team, he needed to, as Davis put it, be "in the scrum."

"I don't have a private office," Burke said. "I sit on the floor. I know everyone's names. I am deliberately self-critical in public so people can speak candidly about what works and what doesn't—to be an approachable human, acknowledging frailty and weakness—all to make up for the fact that I didn't come up through the organization for 20 years."

Transparent. Humble. Vulnerable. Relatable. These aren't adjectives one would have associated with the executives of years past. Today, however, one increasingly hears those terms used to describe successful company leaders.

Today’s executives ‘are akin to politicians—crafting a public image about the company.’

—Timothy Quigley, associate professor of management
at the University of Georgia.

​When Teresa Hopke first became an executive 15 years ago, her training focused on "how to be calm, cool and collected, to exude confidence." Vulnerability in an executive was rarely encouraged.

Today, as the North Americas' CEO for Talking Talent—a global coaching firm that focuses on making workplaces inclusive—Hopke has learned that allowing herself to be vulnerable actually inspires employees to feel more connected and loyal to the company.

Recently, for instance, Hopke had a call scheduled with an employee shortly after dropping her 9-year-old twins off for their first day of school. She'd spilled coffee all over her walls and carpet. She and her husband had argued about their teenage son's phone use. When Hopke got on the call, she confessed to her employee just how badly her morning had gone.

"By telling her, 'I'm a little frazzled today,' [she felt comfortable sharing] some things going on with her personally, and we ended up having a deeper connection," Hopke said.

She acknowledged that this type of transparency has risks. 

"It may not feel good. And it can be seen as a sign of weakness," she said. "But it creates a culture where there isn't fear of failure or a desire for perfection. That culture of authenticity allows people to bring their best selves to work."

Ceding Control

Making of the Modern CEOVulnerability means ceding control, and that can mean relinquishing power. But it may be necessary in a work world that has grown increasingly complex thanks to technology, globalization and social media.

Jason Frazier, COO and president of Skyhawk Sports Academy, said that learning to "let go" and trust leaders in other departments has certainly been part of his experience at his company, which offers sports clinics for children. It has 30 full-time workers and 2,500 part-timers and operates in 30 states as well as China and Indonesia.

"You have to … know what's going on in each division of your business, and be able to connect everything," he said. "But in the actual operations, day to day, if you have the right people in place and they have a safe environment in which to thrive and fail, that's when things work. If it's me micromanaging and wanting to have a hand in everything, that's when we tend to get bogged down."

Vulnerability also needs to work both ways when the professional executive comes into an organization. It may, for instance, mean that those entrenched in the company also have to relinquish power, and that can feel risky and uncomfortable.

Brian Breinholt was brought in as the CHRO for Sorenson Communications LLC almost three years ago. After 26 years with Marriott International, where he served in several director positions, Breinholt can tell you that an executive hired from outside a company frequently encounters pushback when attempting to make changes.

Breinholt's vision was to move Sorenson's HR department away from day-to-day administrative tasks and into a more strategic role that would affect departments outside of HR.

But as a newcomer, he ran into resistance from long-timers at the company. Leaders in other departments at Sorenson—which provides communication devices for people with hearing disabilities—wanted to protect their turf.

For instance, Breinholt said, Sorenson's sales team was accustomed to launching programs that HR later had to catch up with on the back end. If that team wanted to create new compensation incentives for salespeople, HR had to ensure that such programs complied with government regulations, especially because the federal government is one of Sorenson's customers.

"I still feel the repercussions from various people in the operations who are like, 'Why is HR all into our business?' " he said.

‘If you have the right people in place and they have a safe environment to thrive and fail, that’s when things work.’

—Jason Frazier, COO and president of Skyhawk Sports Academy,
which offers sports clinics for children.

​Tito Adeyemi learned about ceding control when she realized she needed executives around her who weren't already part of her company—SA Solutions Holdings, which offers businesses digital and strategic solutions. She needed more people in her C-suite who understood, as she put it, how "to operate in the future."

Hence, many of her company's executive roles are outsourced—her chief marketing officer, for instance, and her chief financial officer. She's also hired a co-CEO to work alongside her.   

Outsourcing executive roles, she said, provides contacts and expertise that may not have come from within her company.

"It's not enough now to have a CFO who's been in the same company for the past 15 years," she said. "I need a CFO who not only understands how to run a business, but how business works in 2021. These people share my vision forward at every point. It's my way of keeping the company growing."

Outsourcing the C-Suite

Tito Adeyemi, owner and COO of SA Solutions Holdings.About four years ago, Tito Adeyemi did something still relatively novel for the C-suite: She outsourced several of her company's executive roles.

Today, her chief marketing officer and chief financial officer both work outside her organization.

"It's my way to keep the company growing," said Adeyemi, who is the owner and COO of SA Solutions Holdings, an Atlanta-based company that consults with companies on digital transformation and business development. "My CFO owns a corporation that does finance. He's a vendor. If I'm not seeing what I need, I switch him out."

Why hire someone for her C-suite from outside her company?

"We have to operate in the now and in the future," she explained. "So, for instance, I need a CFO who not only understands how business works in 2021, but also how to run a business."

In addition, Adeyemi hired someone from outside her organization to be her co-CEO. She said she needed someone who could consult with her objectively about her plans for growth.

"The main reason for making sure two people are in the CEO role is because, while it's my vision, someone else also needs to see the same vision in the future. My co-CEO makes sure my thoughts, opinions and vision are moving forward."

Because her outside executives have several other C-suite-level clients, she said, "by outsourcing, it keeps me in the know with what other CEOs are doing."

The increasing reach of social media poses opportunities and risks for any business's reputation and future, she said. Her outsourced executives—with their own companies, in their own industries and with their own contacts—can cover a wider social-media network than she or those inside her company can.

For instance, she explained, a single tweet from a celebrity about a product or service can make or break a company, whether the tweet is based on facts or not. The more she and her executives are plugged into social media, the more efficiently they and their followers can respond to a reputational threat.

"I am seeing a shift in what the truth and facts are, and what's believable and what's not," she said. "Let's say [a celebrity] has 60 million followers on social media. She could say something that's not true at all and basically make or break a business. She might write, 'Corporations today aren't making any money selling sunscreen because sunscreen just doesn't work well.' She's not a scientist. She's not even in the skin care industry. But now she's shifted public opinion on what sunscreen does for a person. That keeps me up at night, because at any moment, the truth I'm telling my clients can be derailed."

More from the Series

Read the first installment in the series: The Evolution of the Executive.​​

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.