Great Leaders Build Great Teams

by Nels Olson, Vice Chairman and Co-Leader, Board & CEO Services Practice and Tierney B. Remick, Vice Chairman- Board & CEO Services Practice, Korn Ferry International 

The Connected CEO

Nels Olson Brooklyn Bridge

With the presidential election less than a year away, the game of political handicapping on cabinet choices has begun.  It’s one of the first questions presidential candidates are asked, and while speculation can run wild, it’s one they rarely answer until elected.

It is widely understood that the job of US president is far too demanding for any one person to execute without a top-notch supporting cast, and the same concept applies in the corporate arena.

That’s because, for organizations that plan to be successful in an increasingly complex and demanding global business environment, that apex of the corporate pyramid that used to be reserved for the CEO has now expanded to accommodate a team with a range of relevant skills.  Crucial skills required at the top can’t reasonably be expected to reside in one individual. Think instead of the CEO as an orchestra conductor, someone who identifies and nurtures talent and works through others to accomplish strategic goals.

If the CEO is the conductor, one section of the “orchestra” may comprise the needed financial skills, led by the CFO, while another human resources acumen, and still another legal expertise, and so on.  The point is that one leader – regardless of how gifted – cannot possibly be solely responsible for setting direction and executing on strategy.

Most CEOs we know have healthy egos, but they are also generally smart enough to understand their limits.  They are secure in what they know and their abilities, secure enough to surround themselves with the best talent they can find, understanding that it’s not the role of the conductor to play every instrument in the orchestra, but to coax an outstanding performance from each musician.

The best CEOs also understand their limits when it comes to their own tenure and planning for successive generations of leaders, including those that will replace them as CEO.

While overall accountability for succession planning lies with the board, it’s the CEO’s job to help determine not only short-term successors – if needed – but to instill a development culture that focuses on growing leaders at every level.  That means generations of leaders, continually being developed from the bottom up, so that individuals are equipped to not only fulfill their own career goals but the organization’s strategic goals.

Here’s a brief overview of how CEOs perform this critical work:

Sending a message – Every move CEOs make is thoroughly scrutinized.  They have to consciously send a message, loud and clear, about the importance of leadership development to the success of the long-term strategy.  Not surprisingly, becoming known as a leadership academy company can be a key factor in attracting the best and brightest employees, who will be future leaders, early in their careers.

Aligning on the strategy – The most effective boards work in conjunction with CEOs for once- or twice-yearly strategy sessions, which are usually tied to leadership development plans, because the two are inextricably linked.  Strategic objectives will determine the sorts of leaders the organization will require to successfully deliver on strategic objectives.

Developing critical competency profiles – With a common understanding of the strategy, the CEO, with the help of the CHRO and others, can start to build out the skills and experiences that will be required for the leadership team and the layers below.  Direction spelled out in the strategy, such as plans to move into new markets and develop new products, as well as other considerations that will shape what the company will look like in the future, will be used to create competency profiles for future leaders.

Supporting development – The strategy and competency profiles can then serve as the underpinnings for more specific development plans for future leaders.  The CEO remains engaged throughout this process so he or she can report regularly on progress to the board and also ensure promising talent is carefully nurtured and gaining the training and experiences future leaders will require.

All of this is a far cry from the old notion of the CEO in a distant corner office, disconnected from the rest of the organization.  But most capable CEOs now recognize that the notion of leader as a single individual is an antiquated concept.

The most powerful, effective leaders today, whether presidents or CEOs, work through others – empowering them, inspiring them, and enabling them to contribute to the best of their abilities in ways that align with larger organizational objectives.