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Saving your skin. (CEO2CEO Discussion).

To some it looks like a firing squad took aim at chief executives in the past couple of years, felling those in the top spot at Coca-Cola, Campbell, Ford, Lucent, Procter & Gamble and United Airlines, to name a few. What going on? A crisis of leadership? A change in leadership requirements?

"There's a new complexity in our understanding of leadership," said John Alexander, president and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership, speaking during the CEO2CEO Conference's panel on "Leadership Effectiveness Amidst Uncertainty." "The time frame [for CEO success] has shortened, and the margin of error is small. One screw up and you're out of there."

Yet leadership is hard, and people need time to develop themselves as leaders. "Right now, we're too quick to judge," continued Alexander. "Boards are more trigger-happy, under pressure and increasingly impatient. They might give you one more chance to get it right, and then the second time, you're out; three strikes are unheard of." This period of crisis exacerbates the problem, when "we tend to focus on one person to show us the way. We put people on pedestals, and when they disappoint us, we break the pedestal and throw them off. No one person can be the fount of all wisdom," he said.

Alexander and his co-panelists -- iVillage's Douglas McCormick and Aperture's Robert Bunker -- advised the CEO audience to handle their boards: "If there's a lack of trust from the board, or if trust is broken, it's difficult to build that up," said Alexander. "To forget or ignore your board is a huge mistake. Tell them everything -- the good, the bad, the ugly."

Bunker, whose company does credentialing verification in the health care field, added that the CEO must hold the board accountable. "Where were the boards when companies were losing money? Get them engaged," he said.

Still, there is a fine line between getting the board engaged and having it too involved, said McCormick, lest it become a "board of operators." "You put the plan out there and talk about strategies; the board gives feedback. Then once it's locked in, the CEO exercises against that plan. You want the hoard on strategic, not tactical, moves."

Discussing the qualities of leadership needed in today's world, Bunker, a retired Air Force colonel, does not believe what makes a good leader has changed in its basics. "Leadership has never been rocket science," he said. "It's just a matter of being honest and true, of having integrity."

The panel listed characteristics that are especially important since September 11:

AUTHENTICITY. "That quality underlies trust, paramount during a time of uncertainty. Tell people what's going on," said Alexander.

COMMUNICATION. "Extra effort is needed to ensure safety and security," explained Bunker, "to let your employees know you're concerned about their kids or spouses."

ACCESSIBILITY. "Younger staff demand you talk to them, will walk right into your office and sit down," noted Bunker. "That's positive. Leaders aren't the grand pooh-bah anymore."

TEAM PLAYER -- AND LEADER. "There's a hunger for information," said McCormick, "so you need to explain why you're doing something and ask for ideas." Alexander concurred: "The leader of the future is more and more going to be a coach, a builder of teams, an enabler of other people's getting the work done."

LISTENING SKILLS. "Ask your people, 'How am I doing? What's working, what's not working? What do I need to change?' The higher you reach in an organization, the less likely [you'll get] any valid feedback. The best method is 360-degree feedback," said Alexander.

HOLISTIC PEOPLE MANAGEMENT. Since September 11, boundaries between work and personal life have become even more blurred than they once were, "with people looking for a higher purpose at work, bringing their home stuff to work and work stuff back home," noted Alexander. "For global companies, the single highest factor in failure of the expatriate work force was whether the spouse and family were properly cared for. Global companies learned long ago to take care of the whole family."

FLEXIBILITY. "Just because you don't see an employee doesn't mean they're not working hard. Telecommunication, split hours and shifts enhance family life, and you'd be surprised at how productive that can be," said McCormick.

In recent months, the Center for Creative Leadership has seen the processes by which companies develop leaders change, as well, according to Alexander. Companies are putting a greater emphasis on retention, and what he calls a "broader, deeper, longer focus on leadership development to build an ongoing pipeline." Leadership development is more often kept in-house now, to control talent development and determine criteria.
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Title Annotation:leadership
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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