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 in addressing broader issues in society that historically fell outside the purview of business. 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 may be time to reimagine how the C-suite operates. We see four fundamental shifts that can help executive teams evolve.
Shifting 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.
In a sense, the CEO needs to move from being chief executive officer to chief inquiry officer.
That then raises the question of whether one person can realistically be expected 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 CEOs 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 the CEO's questions. The board may not be much help, either. Boards, for the most part, do not have enough expertise. They have an important role to play, and maybe some board members can play that role. But encouraging curiosity is 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 to help them figure out what the right questions are. For this to work, the CEO would need to be able to treat those group members as true peers. And they should not be on the payroll of the organization so that the CEO doesn't have to also worry about their motivations and whether they 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 need 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.
Creating Fluidity in Executive Roles
The issue of fluidity in executive roles 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 by being intensely disciplined about it or by sharing the load. That thinking time is crucial, even if it's just to step back and ask yourself whether you're making progress on the big goals that you've articulated for the organization.
In theory, the responsibilities of leadership in organizations should be shared by all the executives. One challenge there, as we mentioned earlier, is that the other members of the C-suite are primarily focused on executing the strategy, rather than contemplating new strategies.
In addition, those roles are undergoing tremendous change. Not only are the responsibilities of each traditional role expanding rapidly with the complexity of the world, but we're seeing more C-suite leaders wearing multiple "chief" hats.
For example, some chief human resource officers are now also responsible for real estate, given that the future-of-work policies they're devising have enormous implications for their requirements for office space. As if that weren't enough, they're 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.
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?
Reducing Leadership Complexity
In many organizations, leaders respond to the complexity of the world and the challenges that the organization faces by adding more layers, creating heavily matrixed structures. That 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? A more simplified approach to the organizational structure, although it sounds heretical, is what's needed in many corporations.
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?
Also, what's the strategy? Does the organizational structure match it? In many cases, it doesn't. If you drift one degree off course every year, you may find yourself far away from delivering against what you've set out for your shareholders and for the company.
Balancing 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 such as dance and music—you're practicing most of the time and performing for a relatively short amount of time. But that concept isn't present in the workplace, and so we assume that leaders can both practice and perform at the same time, all the time. And that may not be humanly possible.
Rather than worshipping at the altar of the CEO, organizations need a more collaborative approach as we look to the future.
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 most businesspeople are not very intentional about how they regenerate today. We're quite intentional about it in the world of sports, where there's 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 should 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.
SHRM provides information and research to help business leaders to keep executive roles and structures up-to-date.
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