Forward Thinking

January 8, 2014

Are we in the ‘golden age’ of CEOs?

Have the increased pressures facing today’s chief executives forced them to become better leaders?

As Fortune reported on Nov. 4, Henry Paulson, former Treasury Secretary and head of Goldman Sachs, said that he’d “been working with CEOs since the 1970s, and CEOs today are so much better than they used to be.” A golden age of CEOs may be underway, the post suggested, citing Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Ken Chenault at American Express and the late Steve Jobs of Apple as examples.

In the 1970s, most U.S. businesses had minimal exposure to top-caliber foreign competitors. Few Americans could name the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Since then, the rise of celebrity executives has come with increased media and regulatory scrutiny. And with new technology and more shares concentrated in the hands of large institutional investors, shareholders have gained power. — Greg Beaubien

When asked what helped executives unleash their own potential, 71 percent of respondents cited assignments that stretched their current skill set and exposed them to new and challenging contexts. Furthermore, participants added that job rotations and personal mentoring were key contributors to helping them develop as executives, according to a survey by executive search firm Egon Zehnder.

Staying focused during a leadership crisis

As Toronto’s City Council was voting to strip Mayor Rob Ford of most of his powers after revelations of his drug and alcohol abuse and erratic behavior, hundreds of the city’s municipal workers found themselves in a leadership crisis.

Leaders set the example for an organization and create its culture, and should have strong ethical values that are demonstrated in everything they do, according to The Globe and Mail on Nov. 19. Conversely, a leader who demonstrates unethical behavior creates a culture of mistrust, sending the message to employees that lying, cheating, double-talk and half-truths are acceptable in their workplace. The Globe and Mail offered strategies for maintaining a positive and productive work experience, even amid management turmoil.

Remember that situations aren’t permanent. Things will settle down eventually, so stay focused on the vision — for Toronto’s municipal workers, this meant providing excellent service and support for the people of the city. Even when there’s chaos at the top, set clear goals and develop an action plan, the paper advised. Stay positive. Your career depends on your good name, so don’t burn bridges or get caught up in the rumor mill. Especially during tumultuous times, be the kind of person others can turn to and trust. — G. B.

Good leaders need vision and practicality

Leaders are under attack for ethical lapses, accounting problems and excessive compensation. But for many others, the biggest problem is implementing and scaling new ideas, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, wrote for Harvard Business Review on Nov. 21.

Leaders faced with this obstacle can range from entrepreneurs with great ideas that contain a flaw to CEOs with a vision their stakeholders won’t rally behind.

Many people think that there are too many managers and not enough leaders, and that leadership is uplifting and management is boring. But this is false, Moss Kanter says.

Great leaders are practical as well as visionary — abilities that grow with experience.

The problem with implementing President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act is not politics, but management or the basics of execution, she says. Information technology provides “a classic illustration of the difference between bold strokes and long marches,” she says.

Evidence of managerial experience is a good prerequisite for leadership, Moss Kanter says. “Lawyers and doctors must pass tests before practicing their professions, but there is no managerial exam to pass in order to get a license to lead.” — G. B.

Study: More companies use social media to research job applicants

Many companies look up job applicants online as part of the hiring process. A new study suggests that they may also use what they find to discriminate.

The study, a Carnegie Mellon University experiment involving dummy résumés and social-media profiles, found that between 10 percent and 33 percent of U.S. firms searched social networks for job applicants’ information.

“There is so much information we reveal about ourselves online, sometimes in ways we do not even realize,” says Alessandro Acquisti, an information-technology and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon and one of the study’s authors.

Even if people don’t explicitly discuss sensitive information online or post embarrassing photos, employers can still be influenced by other clues, researchers said. — John Elsasser

Tips for being a better boss

We might think of managers as people who pass judgment on the performance of others, but colleagues and staff also evaluate their managers in annual reviews and employee surveys. According to a Nov. 12 piece, even good managers sometimes learn that they have performance gaps.

Common complaints are that managers should delegate more and micromanage less, stop interrupting and be better listeners, do a better job of keeping staff informed, cool their tempers, disconnect from digital devices during conversations and meetings, follow up on conversations and emails, and not let underperformers create extra work for their co-workers.

If you’re a manager, then the real test of your character is how you respond to well-founded criticism, the post said.

Defensiveness might be your first reaction, but try to see the situation through the other person’s eyes. Apologizing to those affected by your bad habits won’t undermine your authority — it will help you gain credibility. Tell your staff that you intend to change, and have a plan to measure your progress. Invite observation and feedback from those who’ve complained and from respected colleagues.

When you choose to change, you won’t become a different person, just an improved version of yourself — and a better boss. — G. B.

“You cannot grow as a leader if you are not committed to continually learn and improve.”

Glenn Llopis of Forbes magazine

How to manage ‘hurricane’ employees

Has today’s business climate become more susceptible to the damaging influences of “hurricane employees” who tear through an office, disrupting work environments and leaving a path of destruction in their wake?

As reported Nov. 21 by Knowledge@Wharton, an online journal of business analysis from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, hurricane employees are narcissists who consume time, psychological resources and emotional energy.

Job seekers have learned to game online application systems by using keywords that trigger interest in their résumés, and with managers looking for certain pedigrees or experience while scrambling to fill positions, they might overlook a candidate’s personality and “emotional intelligence.” These hurricane employees “destroy the social fabric of the organization by creating friction, drama, tension and hostility among other employees,” says Michelle K. Duffy, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

A manager who allows this is “crushing the internal culture even more,” says Tim Withers, president of Parallel Consult, a Boston-based management-consulting firm.

Leaders should define their company’s code of conduct, Duffy says. Some employers, like Southwest Airlines, “make it clear that employees who verbally, emotionally or physically damage others are not part of the team and are not welcome.” — G. B.



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