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Amplify Your Bandwidth: The Present-Gen CEO Playbook

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Heightened ambiguity and speed of change are transforming the CEO job. To thrive, you’ll need to transform too. Some ideas on how to do it in the year to come.

Editor’s Note: Fred Hassan first became a public company CEO in 1997, taking over the failing merger of Pharmacia & Upjohn. The challenge he inherited was well publicized at that time, and he went on to score his first turnaround and transformation. He went on to turn around and transform two more large public companies, Pharmacia and Schering Plough. Hassan stands out as a serially successful leader who continues to be active with the private equity giant Warburg Pincus and has outsized impact as a sought-after mentor to CEOs. The article that follows stems from a conversation about how the job of CEO has changed in recent years and how “Present-Gen CEO” imperatives in 2024 contrast with the less complicated time when Hassan first became a public company CEO almost 3 decades ago—and what he counsels CEOs to do to succeed today. — Dan Bigman, Editor, Chief Executive

Unpredictable and lurching change. A universe of increasingly-demanding and ever-more-vocal stakeholders. Multiple whiplash technology revolutions. A massive tilt-over in workforce demographics to GenZ and Millennials. The radical convergence of all these is now exploding the degree of difficulty for CEOs of the present generation, and it won’t slow down. Present-Gen CEOs must build up the bandwidth to deal with what’s coming. It must be a conscious effort, and it must not be left to chance.

So how does the effective CEO of today gear up for what would be considered a job only fit for superhumans 25 years ago? By expanding their bandwidth through amplified self awareness, amplified generosity regarding sharing power, credit and rewards and amplified networks that ensure your ability to navigate the world successfully.

Amplified Self Awareness

Developing amplified self awareness through deeper self-reflection, enabled by an attitude of confident humility, relentless curiosity, and continuous self-learning is the foundation for any success as CEO. Regularly looking at the mirror and asking essential questions like: “how am I doing?”, “how am I really doing?” and “what do I need to do to be a more effective leader?” will help build strength on the inside to then prepare for strength on the outside.

Put bluntly, there is no way you can build the extra bandwidth needed to successfully tackle the Present-Gen CEO job unless you have first developed the discipline to be more self-aware. Without this foundation you will not be able to attract, harness or retain the type of high-functioning leadership team, Gen Z and Millennial workforce or useful external networks you will need to succeed in your job for the long term.

Amplified Generosity

Key to success in this era is developing a better sense of what I call “proactive adaptation” — the ability to anticipate change and to act either ahead of the change or act soon after change occurs. Some of it you can do alone, but to really succeed you’ll need to build a well-functioning “team at the top” that feels safe in debating issues, picking up early signals and communicating them fast, as one unified organism.

This “team at the top” functions effectively with the Present-Gen CEO acting more as an orchestra conductor or coach, less as a captain or a pilot. This team strength can only come from a truly self-aware CEO with the amplified generosity to build trust, delegate real authority and share the stage—a CEO who is comfortable not being at the center of the action (as was the case with the “hub and spoke” systems of the past).

Beyond the top layer, Present-Gen CEOs spend time thawing the typical “frozen middle” — putting in a team of operating heads who are more alive, more active and engaged with each other, more cross-functional. (More on all this below.)

Amplified Networks

Harnessing the power of the front-line managers who directly supervise the teams of front-line workers is also now more critical for Present-Gen CEOs than ever before. Present-Gen CEOs seek to become direct advocate-evangelists with their frontline managers and listen more intently to the front lines as part of their amplified networks.

If you can engage with the front lines—where the work gets done—you are much closer to what’s happening out in the world, you’re much closer to emerging trends, emerging customer expectations, emerging competitor moves. It makes a huge difference being well connected.

It’s also essential to amplifying social intelligence by sharpening one’s senses around the broader ecosystem surrounding your organization. It includes building up networks outside the company and interacting easily within these networks, whether it is to react to change or to anticipate change and then be proactive about change.

If you make a conscious effort to build up your bandwidth through these amplifications, you’ll find that you have far more feel for your business while also gaining freedom from day-to-day operations. You can use that newfound confidence and additional bandwidth to thrive in this new era of staggering change.

Building the Team at the Top

The most important action you can take to insure your success as CEO—aside from amplified self awareness—is to stock your team at the top with players who excel as functional or divisional leaders and who also take collective ownership and accountability for the overall results of the enterprise. Then you need to build deep trust among your selected top players, and you need to do it fast. Not in two years, but in under six months.

Frequent and easy in-person interactions facilitate this trust-building and in collectively empowering the top team. One European multinational I know tries to overcome its challenge of its top executives living far from each other with in-person top-team meetings every two weeks, even if it’s not the same location every time.

This team at the top must not be like the old c-suite, which tended to be aloof. This must be an active working team that models collaboration and productive behavior for the people who report to them. They—and you, the CEO—must move freely among all your people, demonstrating the behavior you want to see at every level of your organization.

The big reason people in the middle of your organization work like silos is because they see their divisional or functional bosses up at the top acting like a silo. So much is left on the table because people don’t work collaboratively with each other or are passive aggressive with each other. We talk about CEOs being culture shapers and culture carriers, but Present-Gen CEOs must require that their team at the top also be the primary culture shapers and culture carriers. If the top team misbehaves, it’ll happen at the middle, and it’ll happen at the front line.

This is why Present-Gen CEOs ultimately hire for attitude in the top team. These individual executives in the top team must, of course, have the required business skills and drive for their jobs, but just as important, they must be effective culture carriers with higher emotional intelligence than was expected 3 decades ago.

Try to have frequent, short meetings with the “team at the top”—give them ample opportunity to develop trust and openness with each other. Focus on winning together and rooting for the person next door. The CEO remains the center of who can build that resonant team at the top—a team that brings the culture to life, one meeting, one interaction at a time. This isn’t soft. This is strategic. This trust-building greatly helps expand the CEOs bandwidth.

Thaw the ‘Frozen Middle’

Once you’ve got that top team and you’re all building the right type of culture together, it’s critical that they should regularly get out and move “free and easy” among the people in the company, building an informality that encourages everyone at all levels to safely speak up – even to ask the “dumb questions.” It all comes back to the fundamental foundation, which is to earn trust among people. If people have trust, then they will not be worried if the CEO or the team members are moving around inside the company. It will seem normal, and you need it to seem normal.

To speed this up, have your top team join you in quarterly sessions where operating leads get together in the same room.  And where all get to listen to each other, share learnings, ask questions and even to discuss the “how tos” of problem solving.

It may be a three-or-four-hour meeting—get them talking about their own results, and what’s keeping them up at night. Done right, this becomes a wonderful group team-spirit atmosphere. It helps middle management to also play the role of culture shapers, culture carriers, and be effective transmitters to and from the frontline managers.

Win the Frontline

Once the “frozen middle” becomes agile and in tune, you are going to be much more effective with the frontline managers, the people who pass on the good feelings and the good vibes to the people who are doing the work. There is a big opportunity cost when the team of frontline managers are not properly attuned and motivated to lead and inspire the people, who they are entrusted in directly supervising.

In these complex times, the CEO by himself or herself can’t do it. It has to be the team at the top, working with the newly unfrozen middle, that makes it happen. This is especially the case in very siloed industries, like in pharma, where the highly specialized R&D people can become very separated from the commercial people—and yet they need each other to succeed.

Continue to get the top team to try to show up throughout the organization, regularly—at big meetings, at small meetings—in person and via digital. Frontline managers in the bigger country markets should be getting together at least once a year with the CEO and the team at the top in a setting where they can talk about the culture, talk about performance, talk about their issues, talk about winning.

Treat the frontline managers as if they are part of the strategy and its execution. Don’t treat the frontline managers only as doers. They’re thinkers and doers. If they’re welcomed like that, then you’re overcoming the power-distance gap which occurs when people feel they don’t matter much. If the frontline managers feel that they do matter, then they will make their working-level people feel that they do matter. And that will make all the difference.

A good way to model this is for you, the CEO, to gather an annual meeting and be very honest about your own vulnerabilities, and the company’s challenges, and what the “future state” should look like—and then allowing people to speak up about what they see from their viewpoint and having a good dialogue on this basis. Having the ability to talk openly and easily and safely is a very important part of shaping a culture. But then, in the end, you must still role-model that confident humility to move forward with purpose and with a will to win.

The Present-Gen CEO Gets Going

By unleashing the power of teams inside the company, Present-Gen CEOs not only can do a lot more on the inside, but they can do a lot more on the outside. And that is becoming more important than ever before. Where should you be spending your time now that your team at the top is running 80-90 percent of your day-to-day operations?

• Engaging customers—in person. These people are, ultimately, your bosses. What do they want? How do you know? In so many industries, it can become too easy for the CEO to become isolated from the people paying the bills. This is a very good use of CEO time—and a good way to learn about other industries and businesses.

• Engaging lawmakers and regulators. In many cases as things change very fast, the regulators are sometimes not able to keep up with the science and technology that’s evolving. But helping the regulators keep up, is very important—this is something the CEO can do with singular effectiveness.

• Engaging the public and the media. There are lots of people out there that are concerned about the environment, about sustainability, about social inequities, about—in the case of my own industry—the pricing of pharmaceuticals. These are matters that you must be sensitive to. The CEO is uniquely suited to listening to the public and telling the company’s story to the public.

• Engaging investors. Investors today are much more demanding. They employ many more analysts now than ever before. They are very quick at coming down hard on CEOs when they see mixed messages or a lack of authenticity coming out of the company. Managing these relationships is extremely important because if you don’t have trust with the investors, you won’t have credibility when you most need it.

• Engaging outside your bubble. As I said at the beginning, the rate of change and the complexity of business today is unlike any that has come before. The CEO is charged with driving the business and so you must be able to see as far into the future as possible. Get out of your industry, your regular circle. Join the board of another company in another sector. Read more widely, get hands-on with new technologies. Go into the world and be curious about it—it’s not only the best part of the job, it’s an essential part of the job.

Final Thoughts

For all that’s changed in recent years, a few essential things have not changed for CEOs. The first is integrity. You must be 100 percent doing the right thing, without compromise. Number two: You must understand your business and have the business acumen to run it well. The third is the willingness to make personal sacrifices, to have the drive to work hard and to go in a certain direction even when it is very difficult.

Finally, good CEOs bring out the best in people. By earning trust, they get their people to believe that “they can” as opposed to “they can’t.” That’s always been true, but it’s even more important among Present-Gen CEOs.  Earning trust amplifies CEO bandwidth.  So a 2024 priority should be earning more trust with your team leaders, with your employees, with your customers, with regulators, analysts, investors—and with the public. You do that through good communication, by being very consistent, by being vulnerable and by being clear about what the future looks like, all tempered with confident humility, bolstered by personal strength.

Then people will believe you—and in you—especially the people who are going to be executing for your company. When they do that, they will be able to handle a lot more than they thought they could. And so will you. You will be amplifying your bandwidth as a Present-Gen CEO.


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