Egon Zehnder profiled six exceptional CEOs offering insights into the leadership challenges and opportunities today's CEOs face.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” This line from Shakespeare feels only too apt for Jan, an ambitious young executive who was handed the top job at a major global retailer—when he least expected it.
The call to greatness came on a Saturday evening when Jan was at his beach house with his young family. He’d just returned from a challenging kayak trip through rough swell when he glanced at his cellphone and saw five missed calls from his company’s Chairman. “And I thought I’d had my adrenalin jolt for the day!” he remembers wryly. His predecessor had suddenly departed after a clash with the Board, and Jan had been chosen to take his place. An ambitious, fiercely intelligent achiever, he’d always had his eye on the CEO prize—he just never dreamed it would happen so soon. He felt anything but ready.
Not that he lacked ideas. At a time of immense change in the industry, Jan was itching to lead a large-scale transformation. He wanted to unleash digitization—in everything from automation to contactless payments to e-commerce—in a company that had built its reputation in very traditional retail. He wanted to shift from a heavily operations-driven environment to one that was designed for emerging customer needs and experience. And he was passionate about transforming the company culture to make it much more open, diverse, inclusive, and appreciative of its people.
Yet, as Jan later confided in us, he found himself uncharacteristically daunted by the prospect. This was a man not well acquainted with failure—as a “straight A” guy his whole life, he’d always had accolades. Now, however, there were no superiors to bestow approval; no one to give him permission, or pat him on the back, or talk him down if he overreached—no one but himself. “It was disorienting,” he admits now. “Here I was, at the brink of my greatest success, and I felt like a kid in school, waiting for my gold star.”
And, of course, there was the Board. This body loomed large in his mind—Jan was all too aware of the fate of his predecessor, and naturally feared the Board might dispense with him too if he fell short. For someone who’d always been the best, such a public humiliation would be devastating. It didn’t help this dynamic that the Board members were stalwarts of local industry, of an older generation, and with largely traditional worldviews. Transformative change was always going to be a hard sell. Jan felt he had to earn his spurs in their eyes, before broaching his ambitious plans—meaning several quarters of solid bottom-line results. This left him in a kind of limbo, waiting for the nod to proceed.
Shortly afterwards, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, putting further huge pressure on the company’s sales and profits—and on Jan. He felt more nervous than ever about embarking on a bold transformation program, when the Board’s instinct was to steady the ship. “It was full-blown impostor syndrome. I knew what I wanted to achieve as CEO, but I didn’t feel I had the right—or the true authority—to give voice to that vision.” It was at this juncture that Jan, at a loss, did something he had seldom done in his professional life: He asked for help.
Truly inhabiting the CEO role
We recognized Jan’s predicament: Hesitancy and insecurity are not uncommon in new CEOs, particularly those who have not been fully groomed for succession. Jan needed to stop seeing himself as beholden to the Board, and fully embrace his new mandate and identity: CEO of a huge global company.
As a first step, he met with several other CEOs, all established leaders of large companies. This would help him build connections and alliances with his peers, and sense the tremendous freedom he now had to be the architect of his company’s future. The experience might well ease his dealings with his own Board. Most importantly, though, it would show him ways to inhabit his new role more comfortably.
“It wasn’t easy, at first,” he recalls. “I really felt vulnerable on those calls, laying bare my struggles. But I wouldn’t have learned as much if I didn’t open myself up in that way. It was a massively significant experience for me.” He remembers in particular one conversation that really turned him around: “The CEO of a financial services company told me—‘You know, those Board members? They didn’t entirely know what they were doing when they started out, either. And maybe they still don’t!’”
He saw that the current Board were not necessarily the role models that our volatile times demand; indeed, perhaps they could learn something from Jan’s forward-looking attitudes. Where Jan was future-focused, their frame of reference was their past business success. Where his mindset was global, theirs was narrower. And where he saw opportunities to transform the organization, they tended to see threats from new competitors, new technologies, and new expectations from consumers and talent. “I was more in tune with what the company needed now. It was up to me to be my own governor—nobody else, even with a wealth of experience, could do that for me.”
Our conversations also helped Jan reconsider his assumption that he needed to “perform to transform”—focusing first on delivery to earn the right to set an agenda. One of his first independent acts was to call a massive virtual town hall and announce a bold program to “be a purpose-led, values-led company” that would bring new value to customers and communities, embrace diversity and inclusion, train and develop the next generation, and unlock the power of technology. That step took Jan beyond his familiar terrain of intellectual leadership and prompted him to work on his capacity to connect with people at every level. “I knew that if I was going to bring the organization along on the transformation journey, I’d have to truly engage,” he said.
A year or so later, Jan’s evolution in confidence, and his perform-and-transform approach, are visible across the company. Its embrace of digital technologies has brought customers back, and has contributed to a significant uptick in stock price—even during the COVID-19 crisis. Its doubling down on purpose and values has resonated at a time when care for communities matters more than ever; for example, Jan and his executive team made the decision not to cut any jobs, even at the height of the pandemic. And the shift in the organization’s culture is palpable: Open conversation in virtual town halls is now the norm, and diversity is actively promoted.
To perform is to transform
The story of Jan and his company’s far-reaching change highlights a crucial truth for CEO-level leaders in any industry: The distance between performance and transformation has closed. Delivering on daily business goals (“perform”) depends, now more than ever, on investing in and realizing previously unimagined solutions (“transform”).
In recent years, companies that embrace transformation have been the ones most likely to survive and thrive—and the pandemic has made this trend even more apparent. Transformed businesses are ready to be ambitious and expansive once the pandemic is over, and to respond imaginatively to the changed expectations of their customers and stakeholders.
But before a CEO can confidently undertake these tasks, it’s often necessary for them to do some transformative work on themselves, developing their own identity. This may mean working against old habits that fail to serve their new role, and exploring untapped potential. In Jan’s case, he not only built on the personal skills and confidence that had carried him all along, but also discovered the courage to embrace his vulnerability, look within, and ask for help. Only then was he able to fully step into the leadership role and embody it. His biggest lesson? “I’d been so focused on action—doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right people.” But what comes first is state of mind: knowing how to be the CEO, not just do the CEO’s tasks. From this strong foundation of self-awareness and self-assurance, a CEO can step forward to take his or her place as a meaning-maker and future-builder.