CEO successors Featured

8:19am EDT February 25, 2005
It's not surprising that business schools, textbooks and the popular business press pay a lot of attention to corporate leadership at the CEO level.

After all, the CEO is often expected to be, among other things, the visionary, strategist, cheerleader and spokesperson of the enterprise -- almost its living embodiment as represented by executives such as Steven Jobs, Sanford Weill, August Busch and Ed Whitacre.

At the same time, consultants and business writers identify, appropriately in my view, the need for and the virtues of a strong senior team supporting the CEO. This senior team, however, is often characterized as a collection of functional specialists -- the COO, the CFO, the CIO, the CMO -- and little else. They are often the "no names" of corporate success.

But what skills beyond functional expertise do these senior players and potential CEO successors, need to bring to the enterprise to deliver on corporate objectives and ensure their own success? The following are essential requirements.

* A strong bottom line orientation. Profits and cash flow do really count

* Directly applicable experience to the task at hand (been there, done that)

* A genuine bias toward flexibility. In the information age, external variables can change the fundamentals of your business overnight, and a C-Level executive has to be able to cope, survive and thrive.

* The ability to think both strategically and executionally, as the need dictates

* The attributes of a magnet. Magnets are executives who can attract and retain other strong players. Business is too complex and interrelationships are too numerous for the sole practitioner executive to make a lasting mark in a business; other supporting cast members are a critical need.

* An impact player whose presence makes a meaningful difference in the core drivers of a business

* High-quality communication skills, orally and in writing, with a keen ability to listen, assimilate and synthesize

* An executive who really gets involved in the mission of the business, not just a mercenary or hired gun

* A broad world view and a student of trends and developments that can profoundly affect the business

* High integrity, honesty and consistency (yes, ethics are a must)

There are two other factors that are not often directly associated with C-Level success, usually because they aren't easily quanitifiable and measurable -- soft stuff and cultural fit.

The soft stuff is aligning compensation systems with company performance, motivating large groups of employees, dedication to team-building and team alignment, insisting on and modeling cooperation and collaboration, focusing on human capital development and slotting people in the right positions, and the willingness to sublimate personal interests to organizational imperatives.

Cultural fit in a business setting requires an understanding of and compatibility with the beliefs, values, behaviors, and reward and penalty systems of the enterprise. It implies an acknowledgement and respect for the heroes and myths that are embedded in the fabric of an organization and the willingness to build on such culture with today's stories that can add new chapters, contemporizing both the visible and virtual guideposts that shape behavior.

It's perfectly understandable that the spotlight frequently is on the CEO. It allows us to simplify and understand complex dynamics and creates a center of accountability.

However, the trend of only looking at the CEO rather than at the significant others who really drive business success -- that essential collection of high-performing senior executives who genuinely support and enable the singular leader -- must be reversed in organizations that want to achieve consistent business success over the long run.

Mitch Wienick is a WCU College of Business and Public Affairs Advisory Board member and a partner with Kelleher Associates, Inc., a premier career management and executive coaching firm in Wayne.