Given the ever-changing make-up of the modern workplace — not to mention the advancing role of AI and other progressive technologies — the skills and mindset of an effective CEO could begin to look very different over the coming years. Tim Mercer, CEO at cloud tech firm, Vapour, offers his thoughts…

The role of a CEO has never been straightforward. In fact, individuals seeking a linear career path with no unexpected hurdles to overcome, need not apply. However, people who demonstrate adaptability, foresight, resilience, and a strong sense of leadership – even during the toughest periods of change – could have what it takes.  

But as we look ahead to the years to come, the qualities and strengths of an effective CEO look set to evolve further still – for some, beyond recognition. 

A thirst for data

Decision making plagues the time of senior executives worldwide. In fact, Raconteur’s survey of 1000 senior leaders reported that 40% of C-suites’ time is spent on decision making – a challenge compounded, no doubt, by the fact 44% claimed to be suffering from data overload. Interestingly, an overwhelming proportion – 85% – of the same respondents, said they believed they could generate 20% additional revenue if technology aided the decision making process. 

Look back in time a little, and a 2019 Deloitte study revealed that 67% of execs were uncomfortable acting on data from advanced analytical systems, perhaps because they have relied on experience and gut instinct for so long. So, is the tide now changing? 

AI is influencing so much of our personal lives after all, which suggests a growing willingness to trust it – even if many of us still are merely ‘dipping our toes in the water’. Maybe the time has come to embrace AI and complementary technologies such as machine learning – they don’t have to make every decision, but they could at least augment the CEO’s decision making process. 

This doesn’t mean going ‘cold turkey’ and throwing decades of human intelligence out of the window. We know full well that data is open to interpretation, for instance, and this is where intellect and experience will still play a critical part. But, whether CEOs like it or not, we will probably have to allow AI a seat at the boardroom table, in the not-so-distant future. In some organisations, this could even change the composition of the wider board, with vacancies opening up for chief data scientists and the like. 

Evolving leadership styles

With the advent of such roles, thought should also be given as to how this may affect leadership styles. Will different types of leaders emerge? And will there be new routes ‘to the top’ as a result?

In truth, the backstories of CEOs have probably become much more diverse in recent times anyway. Some figureheads are true entrepreneurs – constant innovators. There are those with a far more sales-focused or commercial skill-set. Philanthropists with unswervingly strong ethics. Leaders with a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, who want to grow business ‘kings’. Others with a ‘follower’ style, who are more content simply not to lose. 

This diversity should be championed and encouraged further, because for too long, the CEO demographic has been dominated by white males from a superior schooling background. This needs to change. Only 7% of FTSE Top 100 CEOs are women, for example, and not one of these is a woman of colour. 

So, what will the statistics look like over the next five years? And how will small to medium sized businesses continue to shake up society’s perception of what is and isn’t acceptable ‘at the top’? When it comes to opinions surrounding how organisations are run, the public’s voice is getting louder. While the role of a CEO is absolutely a position of power, that power should not be taken for granted, or abused. 

A cultivating culture

While only a subjective viewpoint, it is my opinion that the days of leaders acting boldly and without consequence – shaping companies to suit merely their own persona – are long gone. Such approaches certainly seem to come under fire more often, with a softer, more cultivating style becoming increasingly common – especially among new millennial leaders. The priority to nurture and empower, with empathy, is surely more important than a desire to dominate. 

Think about the way ‘undercover bosses’ really learn about how a company works. The process is so often eye-opening because it affords the opportunity for CEOs to understand and consult with the workforce. And in today’s ever-changing world, the support of a capable team, helping to steer an organisation and its CEO through the turbulence of the unexpected, has probably never been so important. 

The role of an advisor

Every business would undoubtedly benefit from a trusted advisor too – an external confidante who can mentor and support this consultative approach to leadership. Data suggests that the number of executive professional coaches worldwide increased by 54%  last year, which implies a growing reliance on such a role.

Why? Because being a CEO can be lonely. You may have a capable senior management team (SMT). A reliable and high-performing board. But find the right advisor – someone you can rely on who has perhaps been in the same position as you, and/or who could offer a different perspective – and this has the potential to be game-changing. Maybe the whole SMT could even benefit from a leadership coach.

This won’t be a comfortable process for many – it can almost feel like a psychiatrist-patient relationship, with the leader asked to bear their soul, without judgement, in the search of support. For some CEOs used to wearing a mask that cannot slip, it might prove difficult to open up. 

But we are all human after all. We want people to follow us, as leaders. And maybe, as the world of work changes around us, it is more inspiring to follow a leader who is authentic, and real, than someone we cannot connect with. 

In truth, every CEO is different, and that is probably why the business environment is so diverse, and exciting. Some will conduct the role in only the way they know how, while others will treat every day as a school day and continue to adapt. Completely new C-suite execs will come onto the scene too, with fresh ideas and their own approaches. But in a world where tech – not to mention society – presents new challenges and opportunities on almost a weekly basis, this medley is probably exactly what we need.