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“We Have Become More Human:” Manufacturing CEOs Speak Out on The Evolving Role — June 2024

“The world continues to be more complex, and so it is harder for leaders to get to the root of the problem.” This testimony came from one of the many U.S. manufacturing CEOs we recently interviewed. His peers agreed, many telling us how they are encountering a deluge of issues and situations for which they have no precedent.  “It’s a tsunami of information and opinions,” another explained.

To find out how CEOs are addressing the many increased challenges of today’s complexity, we partnered with the Manufacturers Alliance to embark on a comprehensive study, composed of a survey and first-person interviews. Our complete findings have just been published in our new report: The Evolution of the Manufacturing CEO: The Journey to Gain Capacity to Manage Complexity.  The whole study endeavors to delve into the minds of manufacturing CEOs, exploring their path to the top spot, the level of preparedness they felt, and how their leadership and the role itself have evolved. In this article we are highlighting the latter point—how CEOs are actively unlocking their leadership capacity to better manage the immense complexity that they now encounter regularly.

Over and over, what these CEOs let us know is that they have learned the antidote to leading through complexity is largely relational—making sense of these unprecedented times demands shedding the vestiges of detached CEO leadership. “We just can’t have a big CEO anymore,” as one put it succinctly. CEOs have learned that they must become adept at inviting wider connectivity and creativity across their organizations and that those changes must begin first and foremost with themselves. “We have become more human,” one CEO explained. And this has made all the difference. “Removing the CEO stigma was needed and has been healing for me too,” another shared.

Becoming A Relatable Leader

To make these changes, the CEOs we spoke with told us that they have been actively working on expanding their leadership styles and methods. Above all, they have learned that they must be “out there” a lot more and communicate regularly and forthrightly. Learning agility and collaboration have become critical. “You need to stay an ongoing learner,” as one put it. “And a good listener, so people trust you. You want to be viewed as a real person.” Overall, “The more relatable you are to people, the easier it is for them to trust that we must spend our time in new ways.”

Still, being relatable doesn’t come easily to most of these leaders. Most did not rise through the corporate ranks by excelling in these skills. It takes constant vigilance and adjustment.  “I don’t have to be dogmatic,” explained one. “I have had to become more visible to team members,” added another. “We absolutely have to increase our internal communications with our team, and with our stakeholders, more than we ever had to do previously and give them more of the why we’re taking a certain approach, versus saying this is the way we are going.”

Developmental work has become critical for helping leaders unlock the necessary changes. What the research shows is that more attention needs to be allotted to vertical development, or expanding mindset capacity, especially around the areas of self–awareness, relatability, and adaptability. This work should begin during succession with top contenders for the job, but it will be ongoing, as sitting CEOs keep evolving to meet the challenges of their mandates and be the visionary and impactful leaders needed. Another explained the need for ongoing self-transformation this way: “We are a world in transition. So, a CEO is better served to be open…to invite multiple inputs and not be limited to linear problem-solving.” 

Getting to this point of identification and growth takes constant, conscious work. Many of the CEOs we spoke with still meet weekly with coaches, some with the same ones that they have had throughout their entire tenures. Our survey also found that they are proactively seeking feedback, especially from team members, board directors, and Chairs. And, as difficult as it is to schedule, they ranked prioritizing time for self-reflection as more important than ever.  These CEOs know that leading change starts with looking inward.

Integrating the New Leadership Approach

Without hesitation, CEOs recognize the interconnection between their own ongoing personal development and the organization’s growth and transformation. They cannot have one without the other. They prioritize this personal growth as critical to their decision-making processes and to their organizational outlook overall. The change is often visible in their shifting priorities. While CEOs still rank financial metrics as their top goals, for instance, they also give increased weight to employee health and safety; moreover, they now gauge this as imperative to the organization’s growth and success. Integrating these and other old polarities have become central to their new leadership agendas. As one CEO said: “It is important to not treat seemingly conflicting goals in isolation; rather start at the intersections and address them at the same time.” 

Finally, in today’s environment, CEOs stress adaptability as crucial for navigating complexity. “You have to be prepared for anything all the time,” one stated. Another expounded on this: “You have to make decisions not knowing all the answers. Eighty percent has to be enough, or less. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfect costs too much.”  And the more these leaders emphasize change and adaptability, the more they stress forthright, genuinely compassionate leadership and human-centered communication as the most critical elements of the evolving CEO profile. 

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Manufacturing CEOs have provided a vital lens to see where the world of CEO leadership is heading. To lead through such vast complexity and make sense of tomorrow’s opportunities, these CEOs have shown us that they must enable willingness and connectivity across their organizations. Moreover, they have let it be known that these changes must begin with them. As one stated: “Leadership is increasingly about humanity, sharing imperfections, being authentic and empathetic.” Expanding on these learnings and developing them further for the future has become the evolving CEO leadership directive.   

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