1998 - Chief executive skills
Few research projects are guaranteed
to make a business school academic happier than
one that tries to tease out those qualities most
desired among chief executives.
These lists of leadership traits
have been trotted out with some regularity in
the past few years and there can be few executives
who cannot count the qualities they are supposed
to possess on their fingers, usually ensuring
that words such as "vision" are included
in the first three or four.
It was not surprising, therefore,
to find the "V" word high up in a new
list compiled by London Business School for the
Association of Executive Search Consultants.*
The research looked at chief executives and chief
operating officers in 212 companies in 15 European
countries to discover whether the characteristics
of European chief executives and companies were
The Euro-executive, it seems,
will need to be more brilliant than ever in future.
Asked to identify their most important traits,
the current bosses listed managing change, vision,
adaptability in new situations and achieving targets.
When asked to list the qualities
needed in their successors the list grew even
bigger, with twice as many traits listed as "extremely
important" including international strategic
awareness, ability to motivate cross-border teams,
sensitivity in different cultures and international
experience. Short of wearing their underpants
outside their trousers, there seems little that
is not expected of these individuals.
Yet something was missing. Some
of the headhunters at a meeting of the AESC seminar
in London to discuss the results seemed surprised
that entrepreneurship was valued less in successors
than in the existing executives.
Why should there be surprise
at such findings? Few of the people recruited
or promoted to run European companies can be classed
Entrepreneurs often arouse suspicion
among potential investors because their ideas
tend not to be tried and tested and because their
ambitions demand financial risk.
But there is another reason why
such qualities might not be admired by chief executives
in their successors. People who have built companies
are hardly likely to warm to the idea that their
successor might have alternative plans. Who wants
to see their life's work dismantled and rearranged
by someone with new ideas?
How many former chief executives,
I wonder, look back with some sourness and frustration
at the way their company - their legacy - has
been changed, particularly if the verdict of the
successor is that previous policies were ill-conceived.
No wonder some company heads are loath to let
go of the reins.
Headhunters do not like to admit
this - at least not within the earshot of clients
- but the people they place in companies are only
human like the rest of us. This kind of research
tends to portray big company executives as almost
superhuman and the executives seem to lap it up.
The more I see of it the more I think that headhunters
have much in common with the tailor of the emperor's
Another problem with the findings
is that they tend to be focused on the needs of
the company rather than the needs of the individuals.
The best chief executives, says the study, are
internationally mobile. It complains that there
are too few of these people. Could this be because
chief executives want a life like the rest of
What is the joy of jetting around
the world if you want to rear a family? Such questions,
sadly, are treated with disdain in many companies.
If you aren't prepared to walk over broken glass
for the job then you can't be worth it.
Such attitudes seemed to prevail
in the army when soldiers were not encouraged
to question orders. Anyone who has been moved
to consider the lessons of the first world war
on the 80th anniversary of the armistice might
believe that there could be no repetition of the
leadership behaviour that valued territorial gain
more than life.
If, however, we accept that the
great war generals were not inhuman, but men who
were focused on a single aim - to win the war
- we can see how a goal, be it corporate or military,
can dominate leadership thinking to the exclusion
of concerns for the welfare of the individual.
Daniel Goleman reminds us in
his latest book, Working With Emotional Intelligence,
of the draconian cost-cutting by Ronald Allen,
the chief executive of Delta Air Lines who was
fired last year.
Did Mr Allen display open-mindedness
or sensitivity to different cultures when he cut
12,000 jobs, a third of the Delta workforce? Apparently
not. Admitting the devastating effects of the
cost-cutting, the callousness of his comment "So
be it" smacked of some pronouncement of a
Roman emperor on the defeat of his gladiator.
Employees defiantly wore badges bearing his words.
Sometimes we need reminding that
there can be a gulf between lists of expectations
and reality. Fortunately the LBS research did
provide some areas of light relief at the expense,
as usual, of UK chief executives.
Not for the first time British
bosses found themselves being criticised for their
lack of language skills. This time, however, they
really excelled themselves. Asked how many European
languages they could speak, several said "none".
"In all honesty they just
didn't think of English as European," says
Maury Peiperl, an assistant professor at LBS and
co-author of the study who explains the response
as a "poignant reflection of non-integration".
The British chief executives
spoke an average of one and a half languages compared
to the Swiss, the most multilingual of the sample,
who could speak at least three languages. So where
are all those dynamic Swiss bosses of multinationals?
The report did not specify the
languages spoken by UK executives but the half
language probably refers to their growing proficiency
in American-style management jargon where nouns
become verbs, A stands for amortise, Z stands
for zero-sum game and V can have only one meaning.
As if UK executives were not
feeling challenged enough the report has been
priced in euros, which is jumping the gun somewhat.
When I called the AESC office in Brussels and
asked how much this was in sterling they didn't
know. "Send us a fax," they said.
*Chief Executives in the
New Europe: Challenges, Shortages, and an Agenda
for Change, web site: www.aesc.org
© 1998 Financial Times. All rights reserved
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