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Is it time we reimagined the CEO?

By Emma Kane
22 March 2022

By Emma Kane

Research published this month by the Harvard Business Review has revealed that business leaders are exhausted, frustrated and stretched too thin. The pressures on CEOs are greater than ever: The need to show ESG leadership;  the need to mentor and manage teams who are themselves exhausted and drained by two years of lockdown; the need to manage business in a more transparent manner and deal with demands not just from investors and owners but also from activists, citizen journalists and a wider world that expects ethical as well as commercial leadership from business.

Added to this are the negative market headwinds that are generating more pressure on business and demanding strong leadership and insightful decision making.

In addition, CEOs are expected to be more than just cheerleaders for their own businesses. They’re now expected to be strategic collaborators who work with other business leaders, politicians and NGOs to show leadership on macro issues such as diversity and inclusion, climate change and social mobility.

All this places huge pressure on the C suite and demands a greater bench of skills from CEOs. In fact it begs the question, can one person really be expected to excel in all of these individual attributes? 

I would argue that the answer to that is ‘no’. So, has the time come to embrace and reimagine what it means to be a leader and recognise that a leadership team is a more effective solution for a world in flux and going through fundamental changes in the expectations of business?

An interesting recent development was M&S’s decision to replace CEO Steve Rowe with a trio of leaders. Under Chairman Archie Norman will now be CEO Stuart Machin and co-CEO Katie Bickerstaffe. All will have clear division of responsibilities and all is part of a planned succession.

Given the pressures on the C-suite, this expansion of the CEO role to encompass a team of leaders is a step that many other organisations will be watching carefully.

It has the potential to address the need for a greater breadth of people but it also has the potential to address key concerns around the need for greater diversity and equal opportunities in business. 

Expending the top team from one CEO role to several can bring in new talent and retain existing stars. It gives more of a career structure and opportunity for those starting out and it could lead to better business decisions.

As the founder of an entrepreneurial business and now the deputy CEO of an international firm which has three deputy CEOs all with specific geographical focuses and also a collective responsibility for building one business, I see the benefits of building a leadership team every day but I see too few businesses embracing this as a new approach that delivers better business outcomes in a world that is changing.

CEOs are famously said to last an average five years in the job, many end their tenure as a result of pressure from activists and investors or due to perceived drops in performance. Having a team at the top who are able to effectively manage the wide range of demands and ensure effective engagement with all stakeholders might end that CEO brain drain and give greater stability and more robust strategy, derived from a diverse range of thinking, approaches and life experiences. It could be time to reinvent the CEO.