More Human than Ever Before – The Changing Role of the CEO

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The changing role of the CEO

From the moment that a Chief Executive Officer accepts the role, they are taking on the most visible position within the company. The CEO is often the public face of a business as well as having the attendant responsibilities to everyone involved in the company, from the workforce through to the stakeholders.

Developing the CEO role

Historically, the CEO position has been more associated with the formal management structure of US-based companies. However, the accuracy of the description and possibly a little globalisation has led to it being used internationally. While the UK still resolutely clings to the notion of Managing Directors, the CEO title seems to resonate better for many businesses in the more online and global world of today's markets.

It is probably fair to say that the core role of the CEO is still very much as it was when the title first appeared in the lexicon of business. Early iterations of the role and the attendant duties begin to appear in the 1920s, with some pilot fish appearances in the preceding years. These were troubled times both globally and nationally in the US and UK. The echoes of WW1 and economic instability were still a factor on the global stage. A steady hand to coordinate the C-Suites efforts and to liaise with shareholders was needed to deal with the emerging economy, although it is doubtful that many would have foreseen the economic issues waiting to emerge in the late 1920s. At this point, the duties of the CEO were highly focused on developing businesses that were resilient and capable in volatile times. This steadying, decisive, firm-hand approach became the norm for decades and saw businesses through further global conflict by enforcing solid, hands-on leaders with forceful, often aggressive management styles.

Fast forward to the post-war markets, and we see a very different role. C-Suite teams were now often responsible for directing businesses that were far more global in production and sales. The rise of the corporation meant that the CEO was now not just dealing with a handful of high-stake investors but with raising and maximising the returns of swathes of shareholders. The industries they dealt with were gradually embracing the social change of an increasing female workforce as well as new legal rights for workers. Unions in the UK and many other countries were organised and supported by an increasingly educated and ambitious workforce with disposable income. Probably the biggest change, though, for the mid-century CEO was the shift from a brash, forceful, almost pioneer approach to the modern businessperson. The post-war CEO was more likely to be a business graduate with more understanding of corporate structure, management theory and economics than a brash entrepreneur. The stability of the world stage and the seemingly unshakable wealth and market penetrations of many of the corporations that are still household names today created the need for planning and strategy-focused CEOs. This was the age of the powerful, wealthy, Threadneedle Street savvy CEO.

The modern CEO and their future role

As we mentioned earlier, the base role of the CEO has changed very little over the years. They are still responsible for the overall strategic goals, liaising with investors and stakeholders, as well as guiding the structure and management chain within the company.

However, it is a mistake to make too much of this. In fact, the modern CEO is operating in a business landscape that is far removed from any previous one. Technology, in the case of the rise of social media and online, has thrust the CEO into the limelight. The early iterations of the idea of a ‘public figure’ head of a company, such as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, have created an indelibly etched requirement for the CEO to be the public face of the company. Testament to this is the rise of the popular business speaker, podcasts and books and so forth. The public perception of the CEO is now firmly rooted in personalities such as Steven Bartlett and Elon Musk. The celebrity CEO is not entirely new, of course (Henry Ford and Dale Carnegie both spring to mind as earlier examples), but the proliferation of the idea is.

A second current pressure on the CEO role that cannot be ignored is the post-pandemic landscape. Not only did this cause a fundamental shift in working practices that would normally require a global event, such as a war, but it also changed the notions of what employment means to the employee and the employer. The very idea of what constitutes a workplace has changed, and CEOs need to adapt to that new world.

The CEO taking a business into the future cannot simply be a rough and ready deal maker or a hard-headed corporate manager. High visibility and the shifting attitudes to human needs, such as inclusive workplaces, wellbeing, and valuing diversity, demand an addition to the basic CEO duties. Not only must they now be able to understand the organisational, business, and strategic requirements of their companies, they must be seen and heard as the embodiment of its ethos. The future CEO will, to a lesser or greater extent, need to expect to be “brandified”. They must be the human face of the corporations they represent.

A CEO for the future not only needs to be a business talent, but they need to be a human-centric leader capable of generating loyalty in their teams, not through wealth, not through force and certainly not through corner office dictating, but through being focused on the humanity of their teams, their suppliers and their customers.

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