Expectations of a Contemporary Leader
More than ever, organisations are placing higher commercial expectations on their leaders. The heady days of senior executives grazing comfortably in a reasonably protected market have come to an end. The contemporary leader is bold, dynamic and viciously commercial, they look and sound markedly dissimilar to their growingly outdated predecessors, many of whom rose to fame in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s, at a time when Australia remained largely sheltered from international competition and middle management were often celebrated for modest growth, or simply managing risk.
With the emergence of “tech culture”, pin striped suits and ties have given way to Jeans and Hoodies. PR teams have gone into overdrive, keen to promote the most recent trophy hire from Google, Facebook or (insert another international tech juggernaut here). Their most recent appointment gallantly arrives to save the day and make the business “more agile”. Cue – The next “Digital Transformation”. Disruption strikes and many senior executives are thrown into an uncomfortable state of change. At this point, they are faced with an important choice – evolve or perish.
While some executives chose the path of stagnation, some of the most dynamic leaders I work with are now in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s or even 70’s. It’s not about age. It’s about adaptability.
To remain relevant in the current market, whether you are a seasoned executive who needs to sharpen your sword, or a rising star who needs to accelerate your wisdom, there are a few themes that I believe will help future proof your career and maintain your relevance though the next economic cycle.
Live by the Numbers
The market will no longer sustain executives who can’t deliver commercial returns. While market is strong, there are plenty of places to hide, particularly in a large, successful organisation. Signs of a lack of commercial acumen include; measuring yourself by soft metrics that are largely non-financial in nature (many senior executives in the banking sector have recently come under fire for this), fudging numbers or falsely inflating outcomes, or taking credit for work that was not your direct responsibility. Or perhaps the worst trait… shifting blame and not taking accountability.
Commercial leaders are entrepreneurial and are willing to take risks. Many have run their own successful businesses, independent from the safety net of a large, corporate organisation. I often encourage senior executives to invest their own money in a venture, either as an investor or as an active director. Nothing illustrates the commercial reality of risk more than investing (and potentially losing) your own money. In private equity environments, it’s a common and growing expectation that the CEO (and/or the rest of the C-Suite) take on some component of risk, either through direct investment or a the very least a reduced salary in exchange for a more prevalent performance-based share option. “A” grade executives embrace this performance and risk structure, while the “B” grade take a “glass half empty” approach and often provide a long and exhaustive list of reasons why the venture won’t succeed.
No Fence Sitters
If there was an Olympic event for risk aversion, a decent portion Australian businesses would be gold medal contenders. Market analysts everywhere are placing significant pressure on CEOs and boards to share their vision for growth and expansion, but the scorecard for innovation for many organisations is not particularly convincing. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule, particularly within the technology sector. Xero is an excellent example of a business that has a strong risk appetite, a healthy innovation pipeline and a strong mandate for international expansion. That has certainly been reflected in their share price.
A question I often ask senior leaders is “Is your business internationally competitive? For that matter… Are you internationally competitive?”. This question is often met with careful reflection and the response “Honestly… I don’t know”. Many executives are largely unaware of what an internationally competitive executive looks like, as they’ve mostly worked alongside local talent. If this sounds like you, then you need to start taking steps now to strengthen your marketability and international relevance.
We now operate in a truly global market, so competition for roles doesn’t just come from the local pond any more – The growing trend is that organisations are importing talent from overseas to run their operation. Internationally competitive executives take on more risk, they have a clear vision and have exposure to “World’s best practice” not just “Australia’s best practice”. In addition, they always set the bar high when it comes to the people they surround themselves with. To attract great people, you need to have a clear, inspiring vision that your team can connect with and believe in.
Build Genuine Advocacy
Building advocacy is the single most important factor in futureproofing your career. It’s not a simple case of just “doing a good job”. It takes investment and dedication. Advocates can come from anywhere and everywhere. Remember that receptionist you breezed past, without saying so much as a “Hello” to on your way to that meeting with a recruiter? Well… We’ll often ask them what their impression of you was (and trust me…. they’ll be brutally frank about that interaction) So yes… They matter!
Naturally, you should maintain your relationships with your past managers, colleagues etc, but you need to also invest in new relationships and expand your network, beyond your comfort zone. Referrals are critical in obtaining new opportunities, so the more people you are connected to and can cultivate quality relationships with, the greater the number of opportunities you’ll be presented with. You’ll also build a larger pool of “unofficial referees”, some of whom will often find their way into the decision-making process, often unbeknownst to you. Everyone has their own networks and you’d be naive to think that the only referees potential employers speak to are the ones you have listed on your resume.
You Can’t Succeed on Your Own
No successful senior leader can operate effectively as an island. You need to have an amazing team if you are going to succeed. Set a high benchmark on your people and performance. Don’t make concessions on hiring. Ensure you’ve covered the entire market, that you’ve looked under every rock and that you’ve fought hard to have a strong short list. Don’t take the easy option and hire people you’ve worked with before. Stack them up against the rest of the market with a proper executive search and make sure you’ve benchmarked them against the entire market.
The best people are likely to need convincing on an opportunity when they are first approached, as they are likely to be valued where they are and have solid career progression mapped out for them in their current environment. To give you the best access to the talent you are after, you need to work with an executive search firm that is a trusted advisor to these candidates. A firm that has spent decades developing relationships, who can overcome initial resistance and position your opportunity as the logical next step for them.
The right executive search firm will also provide you with incredible value, because they have witnessed these potential candidates work in a variety of different environments and they know which leader and environment is best suited to them and their career development. De-risk the process. Don’t leave your commercial success to chance by placing a job ad or trawling LinkedIn and hoping for the best. I run one of these executive search firms, so clearly I’m biased, but I’ve seen the alternative (LinkedIn or Seek Ads, Relying on your network etc) and it’s just not the most comprehensive method and it doesn’t get the best outcome. I firmly believe in what we do and I make no apologies for that.
Once you’ve found your next superstar, invest in them. Give them your time, your knowledge and show your appreciation. Don’t take the credit. Be humble and let them take centre stage. When they leave you (and they will eventually), be happy for them. Take it as a compliment.
What’s Your Legacy?
Gone are the days of the CEO who grandly pontificates about being “indispensable”. Your legacy as a senior leader, needs to be based around creating a sustainable business that should operate effectively… without you. You should have a successor, (or ideally more than one) who you’ve invested in over a significant period, someone who’s able to make a more seamless transition. This has multiple benefits for the business, for the people you mentor and for yourself. I’ve mentored countless people over the years via our executive coaching program. Developing leaders and seeing them succeed and grow into larger, more influential roles has been, by far, the most rewarding work I’ve undertaken, both professionally and personally.
Throughout your career, you will experience more setbacks than successes and these come in many forms. Some are relatively minor; missing out on a promotion, not getting a project across the line or potentially states of friction between you and other executives that (at the time) seem unbearable. Then there are other events that can rock you to the core…
Redundancies are a part of corporate life, but when it happens to you, it can hurt you financially and emotionally. Through our executive transitions outplacement business and our executive coaching program, we see this first hand and for some people, it can be devastating.
However, the advice here is simple to say, harder to implement. First, let the dust settle. Then, take a short break. Get away from it and just let yourself “be” for a while. It’s just a job and there are plenty more out there. Then – once you’ve reset….Be resilient. Get back up and keep fighting. You need people in your corner who are going to genuinely support you and help you get back on your feet. Keep active in the market, keep building and investing in relationships . Continue putting yourself forward for roles and gaining useful, constructive feedback that you can learn from. Make sure you are interviewing at your best, make sure your resume and LinkedIn profile is up to scratch and make sure every interaction you have you leave a great impression.
To ready yourself for the future, you need to remain relevant. That involves challenging yourself, evolving and developing the skills and behaviors that will make you internationally competitive. To do this, you need incredible mentors, great advocacy and an unwavering commitment to your personal development.
Are you interested in connecting with Chris Karagounis to discuss your next career move?