Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 18 February 2013

Be careful what you wish for

Becoming the CEO is a treacherous business and may now need a different set of skills. It used to be the job that everyone wanted. It used to be the lifestyle that most aspired to. Now, for those ambitious and driven executives who actually make it to the top, life is not always quite how it was imagined.

In the past few years we have seen an inordinate number of CEO comings-and-goings. It may be, post the 2008 high point, that the shape of the market has changed, and with it what is now required of the CEO. It may also be that in the fast-moving, highly regulated business world, with its relentless transparency and avid shareholder activism, there is little tolerance for anything less than excellent performance, and the stress can become unbearable.

Private sector CEOs of listed companies whose careers have ended in the past few years include Neville Nicolau (Amplats), Dave Brown (Impala), Cynthia Carol (Anglo), Brian Bruce (Murray & Roberts), Nic Dennis (Tiger), Steve Booysen (Absa), Carlos dos Santos (Metcash before it imploded),Larry Lipschitz (Super Group), Tjaart Kruger (Afrox), Peter Moyo (Alexander Forbes), Tony Philips (Barloworld), David Coutts-Trotter (Sun International), Pinky Moholi and Jeffrey Hedberg (Telkom), Pieter Uys (Vodacom) and Nic Wentzel (Reunert), among others.

Moving through the revolving doors of the public sector there have been almost too many to mention, but think about Jacob Maroga (Eskom), Sizwe Mzimela and Vuyisile Kona (SAA) and Phil Molefe (SABC).

And now the board of SAA is hunting for yet another CEO. What has it learned from past experience? What is it looking for? And would any competent person in their right mind actually take it on?

Forget for a moment which of these trophy CEOs retired, or left of their own volition, or were “managed” out, or who buckled under the strain of the corporate politics. The fact is that your lifespan as a CEO is less likely to end in a happy and fulfilled retirement. If you are up for it, prepare for a short and often sharp tenure of just a few years. No long-term sailing into the sunset anymore.

And you may need a different set of skills to be successful.It used to be drive, business experience, a persuasive personality and a good understanding of the numbers. Now, CEOs no longer just have to manage the business and an occasional crisis, they have to cope with relentless pressure, accelerating complexity and the overburdening requirements of compliance.

In a paper quoted in the Harvard Business Review recently, Justin Menkes, the author of Better Under Pressure, describes research he undertook to determine and examine the coping mechanisms of successful CEOs. His study group comprised 200 candidates for the CEO role in a number of major US corporations. He comes to the conclusion that there are three vital attributes that now differentiate the top performers; they are: “realistic optimism”, “subservience to purpose” and “the ability to find order in chaos”. He says great leaders have the ability to increase “the discretionary effort” of their people. They must know how to bring out the best in themselves and in others.

And that’s not all. A major life skill that we all need, and one for which CEOs in particular are held responsible, is that of managing expectations. Managing the increasing demands made by shareholder activism and delivering a satisfactory performance every quarter, has now become the endless mountain that the CEO has to climb. New developments in technology and the social media mean that CEOs are now working, and in constant contact with their whole universe, just about all the time.Even relatively minor blips on the technology front cause exasperated outbursts because we have come to expect excellent performance from everyone, and from ourselves, all the time.Building what used to be called a “balanced life” is, for most, just a dream.The expanding stakeholder constituency makes its own demands.

Instead of fighting and paying the price to get on to the obstacle course toward the CEOs job, increasing numbers of bright, talented people coming out of business schools and graduate programmes, are opting instead to start their own businesses. Or they work out a way to be self employed as a consultant or contract worker, giving them time to do other things that will enrich their lives and give them broader experiences. These are the new “lifestyle careers”.

The boards of the big groups and the state-owned enterprises have a diminishing pool of top candidates to feed in to their succession programmes and the frequently unfilled CEO seats that bedevil company performance.

Is it not sad that the bar for good performance has been raised so high that in business leadership, as in sport and other areas of competitive achievement, the performers get beaten down by stress and give in to various kinds of “performance enhancement” measures, or they simply throw in the towel? The few who make it to the top tend not to stay there very long.

Winning is a game that seems to have changed forever. DM


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