The fundamental role of the C-suite has changed. In the past, the leadership team's job was to keep the existing machine humming, optimizing for efficiency and profitability. But now the challenge goes beyond delivering business results to driving transformation—in effect, building a new machine that will thrive in the future and, ideally, the present.
And the demands placed on most senior leaders of organizations have grown exponentially. Not only are they required to be constantly reinventing the company, but they must also navigate the growing expectations of employees, investors and other stakeholders who believe that corporations and their leaders should play a larger role addressing broader issues in society that historically fell outside the purview of business. And the demands these leaders face will only increase given that relentless disruption and uncertainty are now facts of life.
Who can live up to this superhuman job description? It's time to start contemplating a mindset shift and possible reimagining of how the C-suite operates. We see four fundamental shifts that can help executives teams evolve.
How might we shift from answers to questions?
It used to be that chief executives were expected to have all the answers to any question, as if they were Athena, the goddess of wisdom. But in our conversations with CEOs over the last few years, many share the opinion that the primary role of chief executives has to shift to being constantly curious rather than all-knowing.
In a sense, the CEO needs to move from being chief executive officer to chief inquiry officer. The ability to ask the right questions is arguably more important for the CEO than having the right answers. That's because questions provide long-term focus for companies, whereas the right answer in one context can quickly become the wrong answer amid shifting contexts.
That then raises the question of whether one person can realistically be expected to be able to have all the knowledge, expertise and insight required to explore new territory and create those questions. The answer to that is almost certainly no, and that creates a bit of a dilemma for the CEO.
Where do they get the help to be constantly curious? It may be too much to expect that support from their direct reports, given that their primary responsibility is to execute the strategies that emerge from those questions. The board may not be much help, either. Boards, for the most part, are not expert enough. They have an important role to play, and maybe some board members can play that role. But it's not something that boards are generally set up to do. They are governance mechanisms more than knowledge-seeking mechanisms.
One possible solution for providing more support to CEOs is for them to have a small set of peer advisors around them to help them figure out what the right questions are. For this to work, the CEO would need to be able to treat that group as true peers. And they not be on the payroll of the organization, so that the CEO doesn't have to also worry about the motivations of employees who might be looking to be promoted.
In most of their day-to-day interactions, CEOs have to be concerned about side agendas and ulterior motives. And for this advisory group to work, it would have to have a singular goal of helping the CEO think through challenges and questions, in the same way that U.S. presidents have assembled "brain trusts" to offer guidance on issues. The goal for the group would be to provide a series of perspectives on a problem, rather than trying to provide the answer, and help the CEO build their confidence and courage for navigating uncertainty.
How might we create more fluidity in executive roles?
This question underscores a fundamental tension in the role of the CEO and other members of the C-suite. At a time when people expect more of their CEO and their leaders—authenticity, humanity, inclusivity, greater visibility, constant communication—these senior executives also need more time away from the office to simply think, to calm the noise and figure out what questions they should be asking but aren't. And there's no way to do that other than being either intensely disciplined about it or by sharing the load. That thinking time is crucial, even if it is just to step back and ask yourself whether you are making progress on the big goals that you've articulated for the organization.
In theory, the responsibilities of leadership in organizations should be shared and spread across the other executives. One challenge there, as we mentioned earlier, is that the C-suite is primarily focused on executing the strategy, rather than contemplating new strategies.
In addition, those roles themselves are facing their own existential crisis. Not only are the responsibilities of each traditional role expanding rapidly with the complexity of the world, but we are seeing more C-suite leaders wearing multiple "chief" hats.
For example, many chief human resources officers are now also responsible for real estate, given that the future-of-work policies they are devising have enormous implications for their requirements for office space. As if that weren't enough, they are also taking on responsibility for communications—both internal and external—since it makes sense for them to be aligning corporate messaging with efforts to recruit and retain employees.
As new issues come up, responsibility for handling them will likely fall on the shoulders of the existing leadership team. But this model isn't set in stone, and it should be revisited.
We can look for lessons on fluidity from outside the world of business. Some years ago, we worked with the government of Dubai to create new ministries—including establishing the Ministry of Possibilities—and merge existing ones to address the evolving challenges and issues that society faces. Should businesses start to think the same way? Should we start to imagine C-suite leadership roles that are more agile and can be continuously restructured to deal with the challenges of the moment while also considering the future?
How might we reduce leadership complexity?
What we often see in organizations is that leaders respond to the complexity of the world and the challenges the organization faces by adding more layers, creating heavily matrixed structures. That organizational complexity doesn't necessarily lead to better outcomes, because those additional layers can actually slow down organizations rather than speed them up. But companies need to focus on doing the opposite. How do they simplify the business down to its essential elements so the structure is built to best serve the core?
The fundamental questions of leadership are still the same—are you managing your people properly, and are you managing the brand and its brand assets properly? As companies add more layers and structure, they don't necessarily make things better; they are just adding more stuff. A more simplified approach to the organizational structure, although it sounds heretical, is what's needed in many corporations.
What's the strategy? Does the organizational structure match it? In many cases, it doesn't. You kind of drift away one degree every year, and suddenly you're a long, long way away from delivering against what you've set out for your shareholders and for the company itself.
How might we balance performance with regeneration?
As we contemplate the future of C-suite roles, another question arises: Can we structure the jobs so they aren't so reliant on people who have a tremendous amount of stamina and energy, or those who have the capacity to work constantly?
It's almost as if a requirement for the job now is to be able to score well in the equivalent of an NFL "combine," where potential draft picks are tested in various speed, skill and agility drills. To sign up for these C-suite jobs requires a certain amount of internal drive but also pure physical endurance.
Is it possible to imagine doing this job without requiring that level of relentless physical and mental effort? Sports are often used in useful ways as a metaphor for business, but there is a key difference between the two. In sports, you don't spend all your time just playing the game. You spend a lot of time training. And the same is true for other pursuits like dance and music—you are practicing most of the time and performing for a relatively small amount of time. But in the workplace, we don't have that concept, and so we assume that leaders can both practice and perform at the same time all the time. And if you really want elite performers, that may not be humanly possible.
We may be expecting simply too much out of human beings to have them be practicing and performing to extremely high levels for thousands of hours a year. So, what can be done about that?
Organizations have to spread the load so leaders can regenerate some of the time and perform some of the time. But businesspeople are not very intentional about how we regenerate today. We are quite intentional about it in the world of sports, where there is a whole science around what it takes for an athlete to regenerate both physically and mentally. Could we be intentional in the same way in the world of business, rather than having leaders run so hard all the time that they're not giving themselves time to recover?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but they need to be asked now, before the C-suite becomes unsustainable. Rather than worshipping at the altar of the CEO, organizations need a more collaborative approach as we look to the future. Ultimately, the goal would be to create more of a collective leadership body, rather than relying on one person, the CEO, or their direct reports.
Derek Robson, is CEO and Tim Brown is co-chair of IDEO, a global design company with offices in Chicago, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Munich and Cambridge.