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If it is lonely at the top for your CEO, sort out your reporting lines and help

Corporate excellence is a team game, says Stefan Stern. Have GCs joined up?

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Can Dave Lewis save Tesco? Will Bob Dudley turn BP around? Journalists and financial analysts ask these questions, and headline writers dutifully stick them at the top of the page. But the questions are absurd. We should stop asking them.

Consider an international business employing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. There are country managers, divisional heads, and a senior executive team, all reporting into a board of directors that sits above the lot of them. No big decision should be taken by a chief executive on their own. Good corporate governance requires that checks and balances are applied, in particular by the board.

So why do we persist with this fairytale notion that one human can determine the fate of a vast corporation single-handedly? To some extent we are labouring under the legacy of the 19th century writer Thomas Carlyle, who famously declared: ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’ Movies and popular history have singled out individuals for praise and credit rather than movements or the work of unknown masses. It is just easier, as well as superficially more attractive, to put it down to one person.

The media prefers to tell stories through people – it is what journalists are taught as trainees. Coverage of football offers a good example of this. One camera remains fixed on the manager’s face in the dug-out, trying to capture every burst of emotion or reaction to events on the pitch. And yet the manager does not make a single tackle or score a goal. The players do that. The real work is happening out there on the field of play. But in the eyes of the public the manager’s personality is all.

If you cannot trust the people around you it is time to get a new team.

As with football, leadership is a team sport. By definition, if you do not have any followers, you cannot be a leader. But it goes deeper than that. Until followers choose to work with you and interact with you then there is a hole where leadership should be. ‘It takes two to make leadership happen,’ remarks Laura Empson, professor at Cass Business School.

Some business leaders are prepared to admit this. Lee Scott, a former chief executive of Walmart, once told the Financial Times: ‘I don’t run the company… as a CEO if you have to get up every morning and tell them what to do, then you’ve got the wrong people in the jobs.’

Chief executives I have interviewed over the years generally fall into one of two camps: those who emphasise all the work they have done and downplay the contribution made by colleagues, and those who rather want to tell me how able some of the people they work with are. It is the latter category I always find more convincing.

Another business cliché holds that ‘it is lonely at the top’. The idea is that because it is unwise to betray uncertainty or lack of confidence, or because you cannot really completely trust people around you, you have to keep some of your innermost thoughts to yourself.

But this is a self-defeating approach. Everyone needs support, everyone needs a few trusted advisers, to do the job, especially if it is a high-pressure one. And if you feel you cannot trust the people around you it is probably time to get a new team. Rather than feeling isolated, good leaders will be plugged into rewarding relationships both inside and outside the business. Back to another observation from Empson: ‘If it is lonely at the top, you are not doing it right.’

All this should be good news for GCs. The chief financial officer inevitably has a hotline to the boss. But who is better placed than a GC to provide a rounded and practical world view that can help the chief executive do the job, and feel less lonely? Understanding that the chief executive cannot and should not be trying to do it all on their own is a vital first step to becoming an invaluable trusted colleague.

Let the press and analysts wallow in delusions that one person is running the company, ‘turning it around’ all on their own. Behind the scenes, and unnoticed by many (but not the chief executive), there is important work to be done. Be a constructive follower to help make your boss a better leader.

Stefan Stern is a management writer, columnist for the Financial Times and a visiting professor at Cass Business School.

Author(s)

  • Stefan Stern, Columnist for the <em>Financial Times</em> and visiting professor at Cass Business School, The In-House Lawyer

    Columnist for the Financial Times and visiting professor at Cass Business School