Senn-Delaney: Lessons in Great Leadership
With CEO tenures averaging two years in the US and Europe, the business world is tough for CEOs. The complexity of business and the demands of shareholders and customers are greater than ever, and CEOs cannot simply rely on their existing knowledge and experience.
For sustained success, says Dustin Seale, managing director, EMEA, at Senn-Delaney, global consultants specialising in shaping organisational culture, CEOs need to continuously improve, grow, learn and adapt.
The challenge for CEOs is that while continuous professional development is a given when it comes to talent management at lower levels, often the one person who misses out is also one of the most important – the CEO.
Seale explains: 'The CEO's role is often a development-free zone. Here are the people whose jobs are more ambiguous than anyone else's in the organisation – they are not dealing directly with the customer, their job is not task oriented and it is less concrete, but it is probably the biggest job they have ever done. Yet we tend to provide less development the further people move up the organisation. We should be giving more.'
SHAPING THE LEADER'S SHADOW
Research by Senn-Delaney reveals that continuous learning is a key component of sustained success as a CEO. Leaders need professional development as much as, if not more than, other people in the organisation.
Seale holds that it is not just an imperative for the CEO in terms of personal development – it is fundamentally important for the company because organisations tend to be reflections of their leaders. The habits of the top team are reproduced in the rest of the organisation.
He explains: 'If you get two top executives that don’t get on very well, you are also likely to find silos in the organisation that don't communicate very well with each other. Senior executives have a disproportionate impact on the culture and wellbeing of the organisation.'
'Continuous development in the c-suite is essential, as you are not just talking about the c-level executives. You are talking about the hundreds or thousands of people who depend on those relationships at the top.'
LEADING FROM THE TOP
Senn-Delaney has a long track record working with top teams and the firm's research has identified certain principles that correlate with outstanding CEO performance. Seale explains: 'Leaders who demonstrate healthy performance have a very firm sense of direction and purpose. Plus they have a high level of vitality and energy about them, and a learning mindset.'
To become a CEO, a person needs to be able to understand and manage a balance sheet, probably have some M&A experience and know how to run a business. The basic stuff is a given.
What makes a CEO a standout top performer, says Seale, is an added dimension: 'Successful CEOs are incredibly intentional in the way they do business and live their lives. They run their diary, rather than the other way around. They know where they can make the biggest difference, where they want to be, and they are also very intentional about what they do when they get there.'
Equally, wherever top-performing CEOs show up they bring the appropriate energy and focus, whether it is excitement and celebration, or reflection and learning. Without this, it is hard to display the appropriate energy for the moment.
Finally, the high-performance CEO makes an impact by being authentic. But, without a learning mindset, you will come across as working by rote.
Get the principles right, however, and research shows that CEOs will enjoy their work more and perform better. But more importantly, there will be huge beneficial impact on the culture of the top team and the organisation.
Seale adds: 'The good news is that the firm's research has tied these principles to business metrics. 72% of the time there is a correlation between direction and purpose, vitality and a learning mindset, and being a top performer.'
Mastering these three principles is not easy, though. There are many obstacles along the way to becoming a highperforming CEO.
Part of the challenge is associated with changing ways of thinking rather than behaviours. Not easy when you have been thinking and behaving the same way for years.
Seale says: 'Look at direction and purpose, for example. Often the first thought leaders have is to sit down and write a vision. They think: "I've got to write it down so I can communicate it. I need to make it sound compelling. I've got to do something straight away." That's thinking that gets in the way.
'We spend time helping CEOs identify their true vision, their purpose and direction, which results in authentic leadership, and then encourage them to be that vision for a while before communicating it. Be the vision and then write it. Thought drives behaviour and behaviour drives results.'
It is the same with vitality. Things that rob us of our vitality are what Seale calls gravity issues. He explains: 'Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, "I'm not doing another day of gravity." That's because they can't do anything about it.'
Yet CEOs and senior executives will waste time and energy worrying about things that they have no control over. Equally, they need to be in the present, yet too many people have their mind in a dozen different places, thinking about other tasks and worrying about what they didn't do or what they need to do.
Cultivating a learning mindset is also about having the right frame of mind. Seale continues: 'I meet so many people who say that they have reached an age where they have learnt as much as they are going to. Sure that's true if you think that. But that's tied up with the sort of thinking that says that you don't want to be coached or look like you are learning because you are the boss, and it might make you look weak or lose respect.'
The best leaders, says Seale, are not embarrassed to go into a call centre or onto the factory floor and learn from the people who are doing the real work. They will be proud of their staff and willing to learn from them.
Seale does not believe that he has all the answers. He is more interested in the insights that CEOs can offer, rather than imposing some grand high-performance plan. He says: 'The way we work with leaders is a lot less about what we say and a lot more about the insights that they have.'
'So our approach is more about helping them see habits of thought that are getting in the way and limiting them. Then, any change is authentic.'
For leaders who say they just don't have the time to get involved, Seale points to a recent study of top leaders across Europe: 'The leaders that described their job as the most fulfilling and felt that they were getting the results they needed for their organisations all had some sort of reflection in their lives. Whether it was 20 minutes alone, going for walk or a run or talking with their coach.'
CEOs lead hectic flat-out lives, often with just a few minutes between meetings, frequent travel, business lunches and dinners. Part of what Senn-Delaney does is offer moments of decompression, providing space that the leaders have not allowed themselves. Then, within that space, Senn-Delaney uses different processes to help CEOs gain insights into improving the way they do things.
Seale calls it slowing down to speed up: 'People who struggle with reflection and are always doing stuff because they never have enough time, are probably the people most in need of time for reflection. You may not think you have time, but if you don’t make time to improve and grow, you may have a lot more time on your hands in the future than you would like.'
People at all levels of an organisation need some form of training to keep their skills fresh and their minds focused on the role. This is equally true for those working at the top of their field. When all CEOs are equally capable, it is the energy that they bring to an organisation and their passion for learning that will make the best stand out from the crowd.