By Akshay Asija
Ms Kim R. Powell is a Principal at ghSMART, a global leadership development firm headquartered in the United States. She is the author of several publications related to leading during change and change management on BCG Perspectives. Ms. Powell also co-leads The CEO Genome™ project, which was featured in a cover article of Harvard Business Review and in the upcoming book The CEO Next Door. The CEO Genome™ project was conducted over 10 years as part of ghSMART’s CEO Genome™ project. Our data set of assessments of 17,000 C-suite executives—including more than 2,000 CEOs—covers all major industry sectors, and companies ranging from the Fortune 100 down to $10 million businesses. The research explores paths and behaviours that lead to the top, typical setbacks CEOs encounter and ways to prevent them.
The CEO Next Door is based on the considerable research done as a part of ‘The CEO Genome’ project. What was the main driver behind this project?
There were two different triggers for that. Firstly, after interacting with hundreds of current and aspiring CEOs at ghSMART we started to question the view (that the media puts out) of what a CEO looks and acts like, at least in America. The media presents the following as the characteristics of a good CEO—a patriarchal way of talking, charisma, larger than life, perfect pedigree and career path. What we realized was that this picture that gets published in the likes of Fortune and Forbes, does not always line up with what we have experienced working with our clients.
What typically gets published is all about the CEOs of the Fortune 500. In the US, there are at least 2 million organizations with more than 50 employees led by CEOs and I am sure that in India there must be millions as well. If the press only publishes stories about the public company CEOs then it is a very small sample of the entire data set. The CEO Genome Project’s data set is representative of the breadth of companies led by CEOs. Just under fifteen percent of our data is from outside the U.S. We wanted to tell the story of these CEOs in a way that allows others to aspire for that path and helps them understand what they can do to continue their career growth, because better leaders are needed everywhere.
Research like that of The CEO Genome is usually hard to conduct because of the inaccessibility of data, but at our organization we were sitting on a wealth of such data, having conducted over 17,000 assessments of senior leaders over the past 10 to 15 years. If you think about the enormous development of analytic tools, due to machine learning and other emerging technologies, there are so many more insights that we can tap into now. So, we started asking questions like “What really gets people hired as a CEO?”, “What does it take to be a high performing CEO?”, among others.
We worked with a number of experts in the field, such as data scientists from SAS, statisticians and professors, psychologists and economists from the University of Chicago, and more, to glean insights from this research. What we found from this research led to the birth of this book. There was, for me, a personal trigger to do this as well—a desire to get these insights into the hands of the people who do not have the means to access the advice and counsel of a firm like ghSMART.
What sets ‘The CEO Genome’ project apart from other leadership-oriented studies?
There are tens of thousands of leadership books out there. If you look at the source of their insight, there are typically a few categories— 1) The leaders who have been in the seat are telling their story from their point of view. Some of these books are amazingly useful (experiential books). 2) An individual (like a professor) talks about their experience with tens or hundreds of CEOs (Again, experiential). 3) Research-based books—these books describe, for example, how leaders behave in a lab. A variety of good insights can be applied to these types of books.
What we realized was that there were not any studies out there that are as comprehensive as the one we have. Our data is built upon four to five hours of structured interviews with each senior executive and CEO. And there are over 17,000 of them in our database. We gathered data about all aspects of these leaders’ lives and careers to get the complete picture. Each interview has about 300 to 600 data points, per individual.
These datasets dig deeply into the behaviours, allowing us to statistically relate the behaviours of high performers, which is not something found in many other books. The rigour and comprehensiveness of our data set is unique and it is complemented with stories (based on hundred additional interviews with successful CEOs).
You have written and worked extensively in the area of organizational change management. What is one strategy that has worked the best for you, when dealing with change?
(Laughs) Don’t hate me for saying this, but there is no ‘one silver bullet’ strategy for this. It is human nature to dislike and avoid change, especially in complex organizations. If I had to say one thing, it would be the congruency between a variety of strategies that makes for a successful organizational change and three factors that have to be highly aligned.
One, the leadership team has to be absolutely aligned in speaking from the same song-sheet, if you will, around where the organisation is coming from and what their vision is moving forward. Two, the organization has to be engaged. The people have to be involved and motivated. You (the leader) have to meet them where they are, and listen to what they have to say. There are myriad technologies that help individuals to connect, so there is no excuse for not engaging and interacting with an organization during a time of change. Three, execution management—having the metrics in tracking and structure so that people can measure and see the progress as it happens in a quantified fashion. The only way that you can do that is by having a method for measuring the progress of the change efforts. All of these elements need to be put in place in a congruent and mutually reinforcing way for the organizational change to be successful.
How much of a difference have machine learning and modern analytics tools made, especially in regards to devising a change strategy?
Technology has made a significant progress in arming leaders with easier ways to track the progress of their change management efforts. In a large organization, it can be difficult to identify the value being created by doing things differently. We have typical financial measures, like profit and loss statement and operational metrics of running a business, but to measure the success of a given change you need a baseline that quantifies the incremental value of doing something differently. There are a variety of tools that support the tracking of change. In terms of engaging with the organization, there are myriad ways to communicate on an ongoing effort to collect structural feedback, and thematically organize it so that the leader can take minutes, instead of weeks to make a decision. What would earlier take a lot of travelling and time on the leader’s part can now be done rapidly, and almost as robustly.
In today’s times, start-ups are more common than ever and people are assuming CEO and other high-level leadership roles at the early stages of their careers. If there is one piece of advice you could give these individuals, what would it be?
The advice that I would give to these leaders is to remember that that they are in the perfect situation to build some of the key differentiating behaviours that we have seen in successful CEOs. In our research, there were four behaviours that separated successful CEOs from the rest, and start-up CEOs have a chance early in their career to build that muscle, provided they are conscious and deliberate about it. The behaviours are:
- They are decisive. This is a trait that entrepreneurs are forced to build, or they quickly go out of business. During our research, we spoke to a number of entrepreneurs who were successful in taking their business from $0 to $200 million. One such successful CEO, who built her decisiveness muscle early on, said that she applied a simple test to make decisions: if the decision had to be made in 30 seconds, what would she do? If the decision could be made in such a short time, she would make it and move on. The bar for waiting to gather additional information is very high, especially as the rate of change continues to increase. Entrepreneurs do not have the luxury to wait around.
- They are relentlessly reliable. This is very interesting, especially for young entrepreneurs. It is of key importance to put your team in the process in grow in a consistent, sustainable way. The thing that I see with many entrepreneurs is that they move very slowly to get that key support around them, which is something that hinders them from making the next scaling leap. And without that team they cannot deliver reliably for their investors.
- They engage with stakeholders without shying away from conflict.
- They adapt proactively: This is very apparent in terms of the need to pivot to ensure that your value proposition, the product or service, has fit the market’s needs. It was found that CEOs who proactively adapt are seven times more likely to be high performing CEOs.
To me, entrepreneurship is the perfect place to cut your teeth in these behaviours.
Who has inspired you the most in becoming an effective leader and author?
Interesting question! I source my inspiration from a variety of places and not just the business field. I would say that the writer CS Lewis is one of the people who inspires me. I find inspiration on how I want to lead, from the people who ask deep questions about how they fundamentally want to make the world a better place. I like making connections across diverse sources. I have always been inspired by leaders who have a strong true north and have a vision for the future. They can quickly and decisively cut through to what is important, which, to me, is inspiring because this means that such people are grounded. They are capable of marching forward and making tough decisions that people may or may not like. Reading CS Lewis helps me identify what is important to me and to do what is right for my organization.
As an author, is the process of writing exhausting, or rejuvenating for you (especially in the case of ‘The CEO Next Door’)?
There are two sentiments to that. Firstly, it was exciting to do a research-based book where we uncovered statistically significant drivers of performance. It left me inspired and motivated to be a CEO, which is exactly the kind of feeling that we want to convey with the book. The other sentiment is the anxiousness to ensure that the book can truly be helpful to others. So, it was a bit of both (laughs).
How much of an impact do organizational relationships (both inter-organizational and intra-organizational) have on the decisions made by managers, and CEOs, in particular?
One of the key behaviours that we saw as critical for driving high performance is “engaging for impact,” which is all about how you build and leverage relationships to drive value for your organization. If you do it right, you have twice the probability of being a successful CEO.
Engaging for impact across various stakeholders with competing views is the essence of the CEO job. A good CEO aligns individuals with different points of view and motivates them to achieve a collective goal. We observed that you need to do three things well to leverage organizational relationships for impact—first, have a clear intent when interacting with the stakeholders, second understand the motivators of the stakeholders and tap into their perspectives. And last, a good CEO build routines to ensure they have the interactions that forge strong. Successful relationships are found to be built on repetition and regularity, especially when it comes to being in touch.
Should the role of a CEO be handled by more than one person?
A broad collection of different stakeholder voices need to be considered while making a given decision. However, having worked with companies with co-founders and multi-founders, I have observed that if the founders go about making contradictory decisions, it causes a significant waste of effort for the organization.
So, you have to have a clarity of aligned decision making in any organization, which is more challenging and harder to achieve with more CEOs.
Most jobs today face the risk of automation. Do you think that CEOs and other leaders could be replaced by robots in the future?
I can see AI being incredibly helpful as a data-driven and dispassionate source of counsel for CEOs. As long as humans are in organizations in any capacity (which they will be for a long time), I do not see a machine replicating the role of a human to drive change and to tap the motivations of the individuals working in the organisation.
What needs to happen, I think, is putting AI in places to cut through growing data sets and providing useful insights that let CEOs make better decisions. We find that CEOs can fall prey to decisions that feel safe, because of some biases. I can see AI helping to cut through those notions, and avoiding the poor decision making that can happen if data is not used to its full potential. I definitely think that AI has a role to play in leadership but I do not see robots replacing CEOs anytime soon.
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