Developing the next generation of CEOs

Posted on 10 Dec 2009 by The Manufacturer

Mark Butler is chief executive of Aero Sekur, an expanding SME that specialises in safety systems and advanced flexible structures for the aerospace and defence markets. In this article, he shares practical advice regarding the identification, shaping, and development of tomorrow’s business leaders.

The X factor
Drawing a parallel with a popular television programme that sets out to identify the musical stars of tomorrow, a good chief executive must have the ‘X factor’. If he or she is doing their job, they need to go beyond pure leadership to providing blue sky thinking for the company. As a result, when looking to develop CEOs, the person you are looking for needs more than basic technical skills — they need to be a true visionary.

The CEO needs to have the future of the enterprise clearly in his or her own mind so as to position the company beyond their retirement.

Moreover, the ultimate business head needs to drive the pace, tone, and ethics of the company to set standards and expectations for success.

A long term view is thus required, but this has to be balanced against keeping a finger on the pulse of the day-to-day workings of the business.

This requires balance; the CEO needs to walk the tightrope of setting the bar for the organisation without becoming embroiled in micro management.

This leads neatly onto delegation. It is impossible to do everything that is required to oil the wheels of the company, but relinquishing projects should be more than a desk clearing exercise. The CEO has to guarantee that tasks are handed over to those most suited to the role, while ensuring that projects are clearly defined and monitored. An eye for a degree of detail is needed so that, at any point in time, the CEO can ‘deep dive’ to ensure that all bases are covered and that arguments are sound.

As the corporate executive is ultimately responsible for the workings of the organisation, a holistic understanding of the business is critical.

The CEO needs to intuitively have an enterprise-level view to fully understand interdependencies.

This will ensure that the impact of doing something in one part of the business on other divisions is fully understood. The final facet of a good CEO is an ability to be the public face of the organisation and to project an appropriate company image. The organisation’s head needs to inspire confidence, trust, and belief beyond employees to all the company’s stakeholders.

The million dollar question
The million dollar question, therefore, is how to identify people with true leadership potential and, when individuals have been ‘ear marked’, how they are developed. This is crucial because a number of essential skills can’t be taught via a traditional academic approach. The organisation needs to challenge, test, and nurture these people. It is important, however, to ensure that prospective business heads are unaware that they are being fast tracked as it may lead to their becoming arrogant or complacent.

To assess whether someone has the ability, self belief, and staying power to become a CEO, the organisation needs to be able to identify individual’s full potential by giving them experiences that will challenge and develop the required life and business skills. One practical way of achieving this is to rotate people through meaningful roles to provide them with a breadth of appropriate knowledge.

Confidence is needed to give people a level of responsibility that takes them out of their comfort zones. This is a two way street. The individual needs to have the strength of personality to experience different roles. Conversely, the organisation needs to be prepared to let people learn in real situations. The only way that people will get the breadth of experience required to rise to the top of an organisation is to constantly edge them forward. With regards to who should keep a mentoring eye on the organisation the answer, to my mind, is the current CEO. If he or she is doing their job properly, they should extend their role to assessing who could do their job.

Aero Sekur
Turning the spotlight on Aero Sekur to look at how the principles that have been mentioned are applied, training is predominantly ‘on the job’. This does not negate management training — courses have their part to play, but their main benefit is helping to identify the people who could make the next generation’s CEO.

While Aero Sekur is a relatively small organisation, we are an international operation currently employing 180 people. We are both expanding and developing the next generation of divisional CEOs who will have real responsibility to develop a discrete part of the business.

We primarily recruit staff either straight out of college, or shortly thereafter. Our potential divisional heads are then put through a range of different experiences where they are stretched and given real responsibility early in their career. On occasion, this process is short circuited where we bring in people who have the required expertise for a specific role.

For this, we tend to recruit people in their mid to late 30s, as we then have time to apply the development techniques previously outlined.

In short, I would argue that vision, empowerment and a holistic view are key to developing tomorrow’s business leaders. Indeed, these are the main skills required of a good CEO. The people that will rise to the top of the organisation will thrive on challenge and be prepared to take calculated risks. The company should resultantly be willing to give its future heads the opportunity to challenge their abilities. Armed with an overview of daily operations, the CEO must be able to stand back to take a helicopter view of the company. While this means that they will have the next CEO snapping at their heels, the true visionary leader will put egos aside to nurture their successor.