Professor Dr. Jesse Segers recently co-wrote an article in Management Team about whether it was better for companies to train in-house staff to be CEOs or whether to look externally to hire them. Similarly, it discussed the relative merits of the internally-trained employee versus the ‘new broom’. Scientific research shows that in the long run, an internally-trained executive has a better chance of success than an outsider. The question is: how do you develop yourself for the role of CEO in your company? Start by asking the right questions!
1. Do you embody the values and norms of the group?
The context makes the leader. This is what we call ‘emergent leadership’, i.e. when someone from the group emerges as the natural leader. This leader is a person who best represents the values and norms of the group. Donald Trump, for example, might be said to exemplify what is happening in America in his choice of language and manners.
2. Do you dare to point out the elephant in the room and make changes?
A leader needs to be someone who dares to point out the elephant in the room, and who is bold enough to make changes. This is what can be difficult for some employees who’ve climbed the ladder from within, because they fear reactions like ‘he’s changed now he’s at the top.’ A CEO that comes from the outside sees all the problems right away. However, if they change everything after being in charge for only two weeks, they won’t get the support of the group and risk being shown the door.
3. Can you build a connection with the group yet keep a critical distance?
The trick is to become a part of the system, without becoming the system. You have to be in the middle of the circle, then move to the edges and play the devil’s advocate. A leader needs to constantly compromise between keeping a connection with the group on the one hand and keeping a critical distance on the other. The risk for the insider is that they are never able to play devil’s advocate: often if you’re part of the problem, it’s harder to be part of the solution.
4. Do you know everything about the subject matter and therefore have credibility?
Climbing the corporate ladder from the inside has considerable advantages. Today the number of proponents of ‘expert leadership’ is growing: if your boss could do your job, you’ll be more content as an employee. Anyone who wants trust and credibility needs to know something about company functionality. Johan Thijs of KBC is a good example. He has risen steadily through the ranks of KBC, but also sets up its strategically-important big data project. That creates trust.
5. Do you look for the right input for your leadership development?
Seeing the advantages of internally-developed leaders versus externally-recruited people, it is no surprise that leadership development is highest on the boardroom agenda. For two-thirds of top managers, it’s even top of the list of HR priorities. Leadership training should ensure that you develop as a person. Then you can develop a leadership identity and polish up your skills.
6. Is your ego under control and can you look at yourself objectively?
The digital natives that come into a company are used to being able to talk about every aspect of their job. An open company culture is no longer a luxury, but an industry standard. The modern manager should be able to keep their ego under control. In a highly complex world you’ll get further with a shared form of leadership. In 2017, a good CEO is needs to be a rigorous systematic thinker, someone who has been through several development stages as an adult and has learned to look at themselves in an increasingly objective way.
7. Do you take the long view?
Next to this deep horizontal view, a deep vertical view is also needed: today’s leaders need to retain an awareness of the transience of their existence. Western studies show that only 2 to 10% of the people ever reach this level. And, of the people in this select group, most don’t feel any calling to get into the rat-race and start leading: ‘Answering one hundred emails a day? No thank you!’ The key lies in keeping calm in the eye of the storm and not losing sight of the long-term perspective.
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