From Autocrat to Catalyst: How CEOs Have Changed, Along with the Businesses They Run

For 40 years, Chief Executive magazine has witnessed—and chronicled—the ways in which changes in leadership style, shareholder value, technology and globalization have framed the CEO’s world—and how they have adapted to it.


Not surprisingly, the role of the CEO has changed along with it. Consider how the nature of technology changed from the perspective of the CEO. Forty years ago, information technology counted things. Later it was able to carry out instructions to operate things. As such, it was treated as a “black box.” CEOs didn’t need to understand how it worked so long as they could control those who did. What followed was a long simmering dispute between CEOs, CIOs and others. Was IT truly serving the strategic business goals of the company? As IT spending soared, this became a non-trivial concern.

Throughout the 1990s, and into the early 2000s, this problem vexed many leaders. In more recent years, the nature of technology has changed the landscape for CEOs once again. Raw computing power has been supplemented by the importance of networks. Online social networks are simply human activities that ride on technical communications infrastructures of wires and chips. And wireless communication is ramping up our ability to connect. The importance has shifted from the “features” that devices offer to the connectedness they provide, as well as the company’s own ability to be agile and responsive.

The creators of future technology products and brands will no longer be engineers/scientists, but people and teams with multidisciplinary skills such as an engineer-doctor, a psychologist-engineer, an artist-engineer. Squishy, left-brain science is slowly gaining its place alongside hardcore technology, as competitive tech firms try to get an edge on what their users are thinking and buying.

The digital revolution is shredding, forever, the curtain that once hid all sorts of information about corporate behavior, operations and performance from public view. Yet, few companies are ready to handle the new scrutiny—and this transparency is proving to be increasingly costly and upsetting for companies struggling with new levels of exposure. Visibility and transparency mean that validation of a claim is rarely more than a click away; blind trust is disappearing.

“Calling it the next natural resource, Rometty predicts that data will be the basis of competitive advantage going forward.

For CEOs this means two things. In the emerging leadership climate they must find ways to create the “uncorporation”—a company where the culture celebrates and nurtures individualism, heterodoxy and entrepreneurialism while continuing to meet demanding targets. Second, as IBM CEO Ginni Rometty told the Council of Foreign Relations, ”the social network will be the new production in a company.” The primary benefit of new social platforms is that today’s knowledge workers have access to each other. She believes that in the future “your value will not be what you know, but what you share.”

This includes CEOs. Calling it “the next natural resource,” Rometty predicts that data will be the basis of competitive advantage going forward. She believes it will change how decisions are made, how value is created and how value is delivered.

Two years ago, Paul Metselaar, CEO of Ovation Corporate Travel, a $1 billion New York-based travel services firm, told Inc. that the company’s employees are the company’s “special sauce,” and that he sees his role simply: “I am a catalyst for the business.”

As early as 2007, GE CEO Jeff Immelt explained to Chief Executive readers his company’s success in terms of the talent it attracts as well as trains and develops internally. “Leadership today demands that people be agile in responding to complex environments. I’m one of the top recruiters,” he said.

More recently, at Chief Executive’s Talent Summit this past October, former P&G CEO A.G. Lafley, a leader who intuitively understands the connection between people and results, said, “I care about touching people in ways that make their lives better.” How leaders work through teams and develop a culture of trust with others has become the new metric for CEOs everywhere.


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