Barely a year after joining Indian multinational HCL as Head of Sales, Brian Pereira was appointed CEO of the Australia/New Zealand region. “My training for the role included a three-month Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School, where I studied with 120 future CEOs from around the world,” he says. “This was a turning point for me. I realised I could be a good CEO – and also that there was a world of opportunity for me to explore as an entrepreneur.”
Later, he sponsored all five members of his own executive team to do the same Harvard course. And, today, as ‘Chief Reign Maker’ and co-founder of technology consultancy Digital Reign, he remains committed to helping senior managers develop their leadership skills.
“I believe that a combination of formal education, good mentoring and the opportunity to grow can spawn people with the desire and capability to be excellent leaders, both within and outside the organisation,” he says.
A leadership safety net
It can be very reassuring for a CEO to know there are solid leadership skills in the next tier down. “There are all kinds of reasons why you might have to step away from the job for a while,” says Helen Connealy, Leadership Hub Chair of the NonProfit Alliance (NPA) and an experienced CEO.
“You don’t want to see your plans go awry because no-one else is capable of implementing them in your absence. You need a team you can rely on and, if you constantly build good people internally, that will happen naturally.”
Over the longer term, it can also lay the foundation for a smooth succession.“Our American research found that, in the four years to 2015, 74% of the new CEOs appointed to S&P 500 companies were promoted from within – an increase from 63% during the 2004–07 period,” says Kevin Jurd, who leads Spencer Stuart’s Board Practice for Australasia and is actively involved in the firm’s CEO search and succession planning initiatives.
“91% of these had no prior CEO experience. It takes time to develop internal talent, particularly if this involves gaining experience in different roles, and CEOs also need to be confident that the organisation is developing succession-ready executives for all senior positions. That means they should be looking well ahead.”
In the meantime, professional development can help keep the best people in your business.
“Greater focus on quality leadership and ongoing professional development is crucial to improving employee engagement and retention,” says Matthew Cavalier, Managing Director of the Australian Institute of Management (AIM).
Not all executives have the capacity, or the desire, to run a company. But, whatever their individual ambitions, a capable team will support the CEO so that you can do a better job.
“Having more heads around a problem makes it easier to solve, particularly when everyone can think about it from both strategic and financial standpoints,” says Tessa Court, CEO of IntelligenceBank, a business process-management software company.
“Having more heads around a problem makes it easier to solve, particularly when everyone can think about it from both strategic and financial standpoints.”
– Tessa Court, CEO, IntelligenceBank
Open and honest communication generates the greatest value within a business.
“Simply asking the question: ‘What’s your thinking behind that?’ can have an enormous impact,” says Simon Smith, CEO and owner of Southern Cross Coaching & Development. “Well-informed executives who also understand the CEO’s leadership style are much better equipped to make sound decisions with minimal guidance.”
NPA’s Connealy rates emotional intelligence and empathy high up the list of essential leadership skills. “It’s a pity they’re so often overlooked,” she says. “Emotionally intelligent leaders are more likely to work collaboratively.
They can recognise and manage their own emotions at times of stress so they’re less likely to act impulsively, and they’re also better able to deal with emotionally charged situations. Not-for-profit (NFP) organisations are often accused of leading from the heart rather than the mind but I see that as a strength rather than a weakness. I think that organisations inside and outside the NFP sector should work constantly to help our leaders develop these abilities.”
A tailored approach
As the founder of a start-up technology company, Court was thrown into leadership at the deep end.“When you’re creating the product and business model and running the business all at the same time there are some best practices to follow, but it’s more about figuring it out yourself,” she says.
“That’s probably why, while I know training is good to have, I find actual operational experience more useful. I like to give senior managers the opportunity to take charge of and implement large strategic projects, and I also make sure they’re involved in investor relations and financing discussions.”
CEOs should know each executive well enough to provide tailored training, appropriate opportunities and relevant support. Whether the learning is in the classroom or on the job, it should take account of their individual strengths and weaknesses.
“To avoid any possible bias, some companies opt to bring in an outside expert to establish appropriate, personalised plans of action,” says Jurd. AIM, which has been committed to developing leaders since 1941, now offers a suite of learning solutions including short courses, vocational qualifications and tailored corporate and public sector learning solutions accessible to global professionals. More than 75 short courses are available, with online and custom options.
“Popular leadership courses for CEOs as well as their C-suite cohort include Strategic Leadership, Leading with Emotional Intelligence, and Change Management,” says Cavalier.
The NPA builds leadership through collaborative peer-to-peer support.
“We provide a forum structure where executives can discuss their issues and concerns with non-competing peers in a totally honest and open way,” says Connealy. “We work only with people in the NFP sector but there are similar models for executives in commercial organisations.”
Smith’s leadership coaches begin by helping both the CEO and the executive to define the required outcomes and how success will be measured. “We can then develop practical ways of building well-rounded leadership skills,” he says.
Whatever the approach, it seems that developing great leaders for the future is one of the most powerful things you can do as a CEO to support the business and your own career.