No time for heroes


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It’s a familiar narrative, the new CEO: bold, brave, and ready to carry the entire company on their shoulders. The question remains, is this truly the time for heroes?

In the eight years since 2008, The Bedford Consulting Group has hosted dozens of CEO and Human Capital Roundtable events attended by top leaders in Canada’s most resilient and successful businesses. While invitations to these events are limited, the knowledge gained from the gatherings is not. Over the years, these leaders have shared their experiences helping their organizations thrive in an uncertain present and create a more sustainable future. As such, we have identified a number of consistent success factors to win in today’s business environment. In the first of our series, we learn of the death of the hero (circa 2008).

CEOs and executive search leaders often agree; A-List candidates for senior leadership roles in the period before the 2008 financial crisis would rarely make the short-lists for current leadership searches without significant evolution away from one of their key traits of the past – being the hero.

Bedford Roundtable CEOs described how they (or their predecessors) were often promoted in this period based on old school autocratic behaviors that saw them ride in to single handedly save stagnant or struggling firms with “The Plan”. These popular hero CEOs were often effective but also created stiff, hierarchical structures that cannot prepare the firm or its young leaders for our current business climate. If being the stand alone hero is no longer ideal, what does an aspiring leader do differently? Top CEOs suggested three simple points on how to create sustainable change without enacting an idolized separation of the CEO from the company body.

1: Be Visible, Be Accessible

The hero CEO can often be placed on a pedestal that creates a sense of inaccessibility within an organization. Today’s winning CEO must instead be of the people, not separated by personage. The evolving leader can take a cue from Tangerine Bank CEO Peter Aceto, who has emphasized the vitality of CEO visibility and authenticity in all levels of a business. Aceto himself has been known to put in shifts in the company call centers in order to break down barriers and better understand the needs of the company and the potential for growth from the ground up. Tangerine and similar firms are setting themselves apart by developing this internal, external and online accessibility on an ongoing basis.

2: Recognize Talent No Matter What Package it Comes In

If we are to learn anything from the traditional hero’s narrative that can still be applied to fostering winning businesses, it is that great power does not always come from the places we tend to expect. Whether it is in the C-Suite, HR Leaders, or our workers in the field, today’s leaders must be compelled to act as mentors rather than as idols for new talent. In a 2013 report, the International Labour Organization indicates that we will see a significant shift by 2020 as Millennials step in to comprise half the workforce. Top leaders are already working to engage this population, recognizing their potential without falling into the myth that this incoming workforce is entering with an inherent sense of entitlement. In light of this incoming workforce evolution, CEOs such as David Labistour of MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-Op) continue to emphasize the crucial role of senior leaders in creating a workplace culture and strategy that will keep fresh talent engaged.

3: Promote Engagement and Accountability

We must recognize that there is no such thing as a perfect hero, CEO or otherwise. In order to create sustainable change in our businesses, we must be able to learn from our shortcomings and be willing to share that pragmatic experience. Labistour notes that, “leadership is about being human, and accountability” (Canadian Business, 2016). As such, our CEOs must be able to stand for what they believe in while humbling themselves to be accountable for their mistakes, treating shortcomings as an opportunity for collaborative learning and the development of a new vision for the future.

The real movers and shakers of today’s business environment can still learn from the heroic model, as among other traits they retain the tenacity and vision that came along with it. In the new business world, however, top leaders recognize that, much like the head is useless without the body, the individual is only as strong as their team. Heroes can no longer save the day alone.

To be continued in Part II of Business Leadership in Action