C is the New A

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--By Vaijayanti Khare

The ‘Now’ Of C-Suite Leadership 
C-Suite is a word that connotes a corporation's most important senior executives. It gets its name because top senior executives' titles tend to start with the letter C, for chief, as in chief executive officer, chief operating officer, chief information officer and so on. Yes, it is therefore the bastion of leadership and the reservoir of passion, vision and energy. Or, that is what it should be! And again, to be born into that C title is miles away from growing into that title through proven performance and the KAPS – knowledge, aptitude, personality and skills. 

Once one reaches the C-suite, technical and functional expertise matters less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals. Chief information officers need to know how to create business models; chief financial officers, how to develop risk management strategies; chief human resource officers, how to design a succession plan and a talent structure that will provide a competitive edge. In other words, the skills that help you climb to the top will not suffice once you get there. 

We now see that C-level executives need to have more in common with their executive peers than they do with the people in the functions they run. Members of senior management are expected not only to support the CEO on business strategies but also to offer insights and contribute to key decisions.

A radical yet gradual change in the scope and expectation of such titles and the emergence of new ones over the last decade are clear indications of the rising need for change in leadership as a role and function.  Let us walk this trajectory through a few C-titles.

The Chief Information Officer
In the late 1980s and mid 1990s, most executives in information technology either had grown up in the function, following a standard path from business analyst to director, or were accounting professionals with systems experience. Typically, directorship was the end of the line. IT leaders were detail-oriented, logical, sequential thinkers. But towards the end of that period, as web opportunities burst onto the scene, companies began to seek more strategic ways to apply technology—using the internet to explore new markets, attract new customers, and streamline processes.

The typical IT director back then was not particularly well versed in business strategy or big-picture thinking. Technology departments had become too rigid and parochial to respond quickly to new business challenges and opportunities. IT directors by and large either pushed back with technical reasons for why something could not be done or agreed to requests too quickly without challenging their rationale or grasping their scope, and then frequently failed to deliver. Across geographies and sectors, serious barriers—in both leadership behaviour and capability—were emerging between the business and technology functions. The few executives who could straddle both worlds were in high demand. 

For the foreseeable future, we expect the demand for a sophisticated mix of skills in CIOs will increase. Companies will seek “hybrid” CIOs who have not only business savvy but also experience with analytics, organisational design, and infrastructure— and who know how to wire together a holistic system that can support global growth. In many cases, a commercial background will be a plus. Sales and marketing knowledge will be considered an advantage when it comes to e-commerce initiatives, as will stints in supply-chain management and logistics.

The Chief Marketing and Sales Officer
For most of the 20th century, the sales and marketing functions had narrow business charters and operated as silos. The two functions also tended to concentrate on different areas: sales on the business-to-business realm and on managing direct salespeople; marketing on the business-to-consumer realm. Marketing executives were almost exclusively responsible for creative, brand-driven advertising initiatives; sales executives were the proprietors of customer relationship management at the point of customer contact. Well-balanced, integrated marketing-and-sales organisations were rare; typically, one function had more power than the other.

At the turn of the millennium, marketing and sales still remained separate, but both began to broaden in scope as new channels emerged. Sales continued to overshadow marketing in B2B companies, but e-commerce initiatives forced sales leaders to grapple with some of the responsibilities that typically fell to marketing, such as how to deliver brand messages directly via the web. Demand for this expanded skill set gave rise to the position of VP of sales and marketing, which became common in more and more companies.  Trends like crowdsourcing are accelerating the innovation process, and social technologies, interactivity, and mobility have become integral to consumer media. Because marketing and sales must respond seamlessly to new opportunities, combined roles are increasingly prevalent.

The Chief Financial Officer
Prior to the early 2000s the typical CFO was a bean counter, responsible mainly for reporting the numbers, measuring performance with integrity and accuracy, and managing the company’s checks-and-balance processes. CFOs had accounting and financial acumen as well as strong quantitative skills, but their purview was relatively narrow and confined mostly to their department. The typical CFO was also country-centric, even at firms with an international presence, operating on the theory that regulatory differences made global finance too complicated.

Today, however, regional differences loom larger than ever, and multinationals no longer have the luxury of keeping finance issues within geographical boundaries. Managing a company’s financials has become increasingly complex. Most large companies have a head of accounting team up with the CFO, who in turn plays a much more strategic role.

The top finance job now involves helping the CEO and business heads find new opportunities and assess their strategic and financial merits and risks. As risk management has moved up in importance and corporate attention, the chief of finance has stepped up to become the CEO’s partner in making ambitious but rational choices on a wide range of issues. 

The other C-Suite titles have also gone through similar radical, paradigm shifts. The CSCM – chief supply chain management, the CHRO – chief human resources, the CGC – chief general counsel, and ofcourse, the CEO – chief executive.

Going forward, C-level executives will not simply manage their own business areas; they will be active members of the firm’s senior leadership who advise the CEO on key decisions. As one executive recruiter put it, “The C-level person today needs to be more team-oriented, capable of multitasking continuously and leading without rank, able to resist stress and make sure that his subordinates do not burn out. One needs to do all of this with a big smile in an open plan office. In other words, we are looking at a whole new breed of top executives.”

What does it take and what does one need to develop so as to be the Right-kind of C-Suite leader. How does the C become the new A – the first alphabet of not just a success but, a sustainable success. So what are the C-skills and personality markers to watch.

Character - Who you are
Being a strong leader means first and foremost understanding yourself: what you are passionate about, what moves you, what your purpose is, and what you are ultimately trying to build. It also means understanding your team and what it takes to motivate them to execute on your vision. It means knowing your strengths as a leader, recognising your shortcomings, and working hard on becoming someone who people will follow. One need not be perfect, but having character that others in the organisation respect and trust is essential.  “For individuals character is destiny, for organisations culture is destiny.”  In my opinion, one cannot build a strong culture that withstands the test of time without character.

Competence - What you know
Having a clear understanding where your competences lie is crucial to great leadership. Your experiences and your knowledge shape your vision; it is your North Star. That said, being open to continuously learning and evolving is very important. The best of the best spend a lot of time exploring and being open to new experiences. They also admit that they do not possess all the knowledge in the world, hence they form strong partnerships and collaborations.

Collaboration - Who you bring on board
Being an enlightened leader means knowing your strengths and your weaknesses and augmenting them accordingly. Success is a team sport, hence it becomes especially important to form a leadership team that complements each other. The same goes for the industry partnerships.

Courage - How far are you willing to take your vision
Revolutionising industries and challenging the status quo is not easy. But that is exactly what is expected from extraordinary leadership. Being a pioneer means being on the front lines, but it also means having a big target on your back. There are a lot of nay-sayers, as well as a tonne of external pressures. Having courage to stick to your convictions and seeing your vision through is essential to the success of any venture. Staying on course because you see something that others do not is what eventually leads to establishing a new normal, it is what leads to progress. I believe it was Ambrose Redmoon who said: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”  

Vaijayanti Khare is known for her dynamic engagements in the corporate, academic, social and development fields in Kathmandu over the past decade. Her writings are a reflection of her hands-on work, insights, studies, success and challenges.

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