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Is it Time to Reimagine the C-Suite?

by Derek Robson and Tim Brown

Given the growing demands on C-suite executives, the current structure for leading companies may not be sustainable.

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LIKE SO MANY THINGS IN RECENT YEARS, the fundamental role of the C-suite has changed. In the past, the leadership team’s job was to keep the existing machine humming, optimizing for efficiency and profitability. But now the challenge goes beyond delivering results to driving transformation — in effect, building a new machine that will thrive in the future as well as the present.

The demands placed on senior leaders of organizations have grown exponentially. Not only are they required to be constantly reinventing their company but they must also navigate the growing expectations of employees, investors and other stakeholders who believe corporations and their leaders should play a larger role in addressing broader societal issues that have historically fallen outside of the purview of business. And given that relentless disruption and uncertainty are now facts of life, the demands leaders face will only increase.

Who can live up to this superhuman job description? It’s time to start contemplating a mindset shift and a reimagining of how the C-suite operates. We see four fundamental shifts that can help executive teams evolve.


SHIFT 1: FROM ANSWER-PROVIDERS TO QUESTIONERS. It used to be that executives were expected to have all the answers to any question, as if they were Athena, the goddess of wisdom. But in our conversations with CEOs over the last few years, many have shared the opinion that the primary role of executives has to shift to being constantly curious rather than all-knowing.

In a sense, the CEO needs to pivot from being chief executive officer to chief inquiry officer. The ability to ask the right questions is now arguably more important than having the right answers. That’s because questions provide long-term focus for companies, whereas the right answer in one context can quickly become the wrong answer amid shifting scenarios.

That then raises the question of whether one person can realistically be expected to possess all the knowledge, expertise and insight required to explore new territory and create those questions. The answer is almost certainly No, which creates a dilemma for leaders: Where do they get the help they need to be constantly curious?

It may be too much to expect that support from their direct reports, given that their primary responsibility is to execute the strategies that emerge from those questions. The board may not be much help, either. Boards, for the most part, are not expert enough. They definitely have an important role to play, and maybe some board members can assist on this; but it’s not something that they are generally set up to do. After all, they are governance mechanisms more than knowledge-seeking mechanisms.

One possible solution for providing more support to CEOs is for them to have a small set of peer advisors around them to help them figure out what the right questions are.

For this to work, the CEO would need to be able to treat that group as true peers. They shouldn’t all be on the payroll of the organization, so that the CEO doesn’t have to worry about the motivations of people who might be looking to be promoted. For this ‘knowledge-seeking advisory group’ to work, it would have to have a singular goal of helping the CEO think through challenges and questions, in the same way that U.S. presidents have assembled ‘brain trusts’ to offer guidance on issues. The goal for the group would be to provide a series of perspectives on a particular problem, rather than trying to provide the answer, and help the CEO build their confidence and courage for navigating uncertainty.


SHIFT 2: MORE FLUIDITY IN EXECUTIVE ROLES. This shift underscores a fundamental tension in the role of the CEO and other members of the C-suite. At a time when people expect more of all leaders — authenticity, humanity, inclusivity, greater visibility, constant communication — senior executives also need more time away from the office to simply think — to calm the noise and figure out which questions they should be asking. And there is no way to do that other than being either intensely disciplined about it or by sharing the load. Thinking time is crucial, even if it is just to step back and ask yourself whether you are making progress on the big goals you’ve articulated for the organization.

In theory, the responsibilities of leadership in organizations should be shared and spread across executives. One challenge there, as we mentioned earlier, is that the C-suite is primarily focused on executing the current strategy, rather than contemplating new strategies. In addition, those roles themselves are facing their own existential crisis. Not only are the responsibilities of each traditional role expanding rapidly with the complexity of the world, but also we are seeing more C-suite leaders wearing multiple hats.

For example, many chief human resources officers are now also responsible for real estate, given that the future-of-work policies they are devising have enormous implications for their requirements for office space. As if that weren’t enough, they are also taking on responsibility for communications — both internal and external — since it makes sense for them to be aligning corporate messaging with efforts to recruit and retain employees.

We can look for lessons on fluidity from outside the world of business. Some years ago, we worked with the government of Dubai to create new ministries — including establishing a Ministry of Possibilities — and merge existing ones to address the evolving challenges and issues that society faces. Should businesses start to think the same way? Should we start to imagine C-suite leadership roles that are more agile and can be continuously restructured to deal with the challenges of the moment while also considering the future?



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The CEO needs to pivot from being chief executive officer
to chief inquiry officer.



SHIFT 3: REDUCED LEADERSHIP COMPLEXITY. We often see leaders respond to the complexity of their world and the challenges their organization faces by adding more layers, creating heavily matrixed structures. But that doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes, because those additional layers can actually slow down an organization rather than speed it up. Companies need to focus on doing the opposite: Simplifying the business down to its essential elements so the structure is built to best serve the core.

Even in today’s challenging environment, the two fundamental questions of leadership remain the same: Are you managing your people properly? And are you managing your brand and its assets properly? More layers and structure don’t necessarily make these things better. What is the core strategy? Does the organizational structure match it? In many cases, it doesn’t.



As we contemplate the future of C-suite roles, another question arises: Can we structure these jobs so they aren’t so reliant on people who have a super-human amount of stamina and energy and the capacity to work constantly?

It’s almost as if a requirement for these jobs now is to be able to score well in the equivalent of an NFL ‘combine,’ where potential draft picks are tested in various speed, skill and agility drills. To sign up for these C-suite jobs requires a certain amount of internal drive, but also, pure physical endurance. Is it possible to imagine doing these jobs without requiring that level of relentless physical and mental effort?

Sports are often used as a metaphor for business, but there is a key difference between the two. In sports, you don’t spend all your time just playing the game. You spend significant amount of time training. And the same is true for other pursuits, like dance and music. These artists are practising most of the time and performing for a relatively small amount of time. But in the workplace, we assume that leaders can both practice and perform at the same time, all the time. And if you really want elite performers running your organization, that just may not be humanly possible any longer. We may be expecting simply too much out of human beings to have them be practising and performing to extremely high levels for thousands of hours a year.

So, what can be done about that? Organizations have to spread the load so leaders can regenerate some of the time and perform some of the time. But businesspeople are not very intentional about how they regenerate today. In the world of sports, there is a whole science around what it takes for an athlete to regenerate both physically and mentally. Could we be intentional in the same way in the world of business, rather than having leaders run so hard all the time that they don’t give themselves time to recover mentally and physically? Just imagine the impact on their performance.


In closing

There are no easy answers to these four shifts, but they do need to be considered now, before the C-suite becomes unsustainable. Rather than worshipping at the altar of the CEO, organizations need a more collaborative approach as we look to the future. Ultimately, the goal will be to create more of a collective leadership body, rather than relying on one person and their direct reports.

Derek Robson is the CEO of IDEO. Tim Brown is Chair of IDEO. He Serves on the Board of Steelcase Inc. and is a member of the Board of Advisors for the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This article was originally published by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM).

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