Part – 1 The Importance Of The C-Suite In The Tech Generation

In the last 20 years, the C-suite – that elite club of company executives – has changed beyond all recognition. The acronyms of old might still be the same and quite a few new ones have certainly been added (Google has a “Chief Internet Evangelist” for example), but the demands and responsibilities of this band of executives look very different to the ones from even just a few decades ago.

C-suite in the tech generation

In this three-part series on the importance of the C-suite, I shall set out why these individuals at the top are still a critical factor in a company’s success. I shall also delve deep into the new roles that have been created by a fast-moving, tech-catalysed world and what that means for your company, and finally what the C-suite of the future might look like.

But for this first part, I want to start at the very top with the man or woman at whom the buck stops: the CEO. The Chief Executive Officer is the ultimate all-rounder, requiring excellent people management skills, financial savvy, strong communication and, increasingly, a solid grounding in tech. Take KPMG’s 2017 CEO Outlook report, which surveyed more than 1,300 CEOs worldwide. Alongside answers to questions about disruption, market challenges and tech investment was the fact that 71% of CEOs report taking training or earning new professional qualifications in the past 12 months, while 75% “say they are now more open to new influences and collaborations than at any other time in their careers.

Not so long ago, the CEO was something of an autocrat, a one-man decision-making machine who rolled with the punches and the plaudits. He (and it was almost exclusively ‘he’) was also a micromanager of people and so everyone in the organisation knew the boundaries of their roles. While this might seem normal and even preferable at first glance, today it’s an outmoded and hugely ineffective approach to management. We know for a scientific fact that employees respond much better when they feel they are valued and listened to by seniors and contemporary companies have for the most part reflected this in a general flattening of hierarchy within the workplace. More people have more say in how they think their company should be run. Thus, the modern CEO has had to evolve to be able to listen to experts in fields that are changing fast, most notably tech. For many CEOs today, their first c-suite role was in the pre-tech days and so they must acknowledge that there are younger colleagues who have specialist skill sets that are critical to the future health of the organisation.

With that in mind, the CEO’s role today is something akin to a greaser of the wheels. The very best CEOs surround themselves with the very best executives and trust in their individual skillsets to solve problems swiftly and effectively. It’s a balance between knowing when to step back and allow one’s team to flow, or stepping in and providing guidance and experience. In retail especially, a CEO has their work cut out being reactive to changes in market conditions while also maintaining a degree of passivity when things are going well. Traditionally, when the proverbial hit the fan, the CEO would naturally shift into a highly directive mode of management, since that is how the hierarchical management structure would leverage intelligence and thus funnel power. But the best of today’s companies don’t do this, despite having a C-suite full of all the recognisable acronyms. Instead, they are blessed with CEOs who know how to aggregate and leverage the collective intelligence of the company’s leaders by nurturing a collaborative community.

One facet of the CEO that is rarely discussed is attitude. It probably goes without saying that a CEO has a very good work ethic, otherwise they wouldn’t have climbed to such a senior position in the first place. But it’s their attitude to change that is one of the most underrated reasons why a company is successful or not, precisely because the company ethos flows down from the top. If the CEO is an authoritative perfectionist who takes no prisoners, then his senior managers are very likely to pass this attitude down to their teams, creating a workplace full of resentment and distrust. If the CEO is approachable and an excellent communicator however, then the company will invariably be open to evolving. To successfully lead a company is to enable every single one of its employees, and that is only achieved if the CEO has the humility to listen to each of those voices and then create an ecosystem which moves to the same pulse. This last bit is key and perhaps underlines the CEOs most important function: to create a shared vision for the organisation. It is only through an open attitude that the CEO will be able to disseminate this vision in such a way that inspires others to believe in the journey.

In part 2, I will delve deeper into the constituent parts of today’s C-suite, defining the most common roles and the newcomers to the board.