The subject of this episode of the Better Boards Podcast Series is “The changing role of CEOs and their relationship with their boards.” Dr Sabine Dembowski talks to Dr Kati Najipoor-Smith, who leads the Global CEO practice of Egon Zehnder – https://www.egonzehnder.com/office/frankfurt/consultant/kati-najipoor-smith.
Complex and rapid changes are reshaping the role of the CEO. A recent study found that less than half of CEOs feel fully aligned with their teams – and even fewer with their boards. How is this happening?
Kati leads Egon Zehnder’s global CEO Practice and is also deeply involved in the firm’s Board Consulting Practice. Drawing on decades of global advisory and management experience, she advises Chairs and CEOs across all industry sectors and regions on building effective and sustainable leadership at the top of their organisations. Before joining Egon Zehnder, she held senior roles in industrial and automotive consulting firms in Europe and the United States, leading large-scale strategic, change, and benchmarking projects. She also held technical management positions at European and U.S. engineering companies.
CEOs are “sometimes lonely”
Kati’s recent study “It starts with the CEO” sheds light on many aspects of the role of the CEO, including their priorities, how they connect with stakeholders and how to change their businesses. It is one of the most extensive studies of its kind ever conducted and generated responses from almost 1,000 CEOs with combined 2020 revenues of over 3.7 trillion.
“97 percent of CEOs surveyed… agreed they need to change along with their company”
Kati reports that there has been a massive acceleration of change in the last two years, and not only do businesses have to change, but CEOs recognise that they have to change as well. Sixty-six percent of CEOs in her 2018 survey agreed or strongly agreed they need to reflect on their leadership style, which increased to a massive eighty-three percent in 2020.
She describes that CEOs feel their most significant role is to create cohesion in their leadership team, raise collective ambition, and emphasise the importance of listening, not to “fix” the team but for all to learn.
“Less than half of CEOs felt aligned with of their teams and even less with their boards”
One significant survey finding was that less than half of CEOs felt aligned with their teams and even less with their boards. Kati argues that the world has become more complex, and some boards struggle to adapt to emerging trends and developments, but relationships suffer if alignment is purely about control.
She also clarifies that having a more cohesive vision is not the same as everyone having the same viewpoint. It is more about looking at issues such as ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) as part of the overall direction of the company. She maintains that it is possible to work with alignment and corporate direction and still provide shareholder value.
“The base-line should be wanting to help”
Kati’s survey highlighted how productive CEOs are able to achieve their goals and notes that their relationships tend to be honest, transparent, communicative and proactive. “We’re not talking about liking each other – it’s about professional trust, and empathy is always a good thing to have.” While numbers and strategy are essential, the behaviour of the CEO (and whether a CEO is properly listening and being receptive to what the board around them has to say) is a key factor in success. Executives in a productive team will often have a mentor on the board of directors, which helps grow future leaders.
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