Stepping into a New C-Suite

We first met Rob Davies when he participated in a TAI high impact communication program more years ago than either of us would care to name. Rob spent 25 years with BCG focusing on Strategy and Organizational Culture. For the last 11 years, Rob has worked with Banyan Global, advising owners of businesses on issues of portfolio, governance, succession, and change. He also works with entrepreneurs tackling the world’s greatest problems associated with inclusion, education, and climate. Rob and Gifford connected recently to talk about changing C-Suite demographics, shifts in our ways of working, and the future of corporate leadership.

GB: We're questioning old patterns and old ways of leadership succession. Worldwide, voters are electing young leaders to govern their countries and interface with the world. Look at Volodymyr Zelensky's compelling leadership in Ukraine and how Jacinta Arden has led her country through the worst of the pandemic with a compassionate and clear strategy. We want our governments, organizations, and employers to behave in a younger, more current way. Why?

How we learned

RD: So much is rooted in how we were educated. Boomers like me and the beginning of Generation X went to school in the control and command era. We sat with our arms around our papers and our heads down so that no one could copy our work. The teachers were the ultimate authority. Collaboration in schooling didn't exist. We all sat in rows, and the desks were set apart, one behind the other. The only 'working together' happened on the sports field.

Now, look at how Millennials and Gen Z learned. Community tables in the classrooms, different pods for different subjects and skill levels. Collaboration. Communication. Presentation. Independent research. First graders are making PowerPoint presentations! Rather than "Do your own work!" these kids heard, "Here are the questions. Here are some resources. Talk to your teammates. Figure it out." That is the mindset needed in 21st-century corporate leadership, and we aren't going to find it in the Boomers and Gen X.

GB: Can you say more about that, Rob?

RD: It's all about working in an organization that is much looser in structure and process. We used to pride ourselves on being tight, disciplined, following the procedure, and now it's the opposite. Organizations today are proud of being loose, letting people find their way to answers and innovations. Millennials have lived this all their lives. Look at any company of a significant size run by a much younger CEO. There is a different hierarchical structure and a different approach to day-to-day operations. And they are managing a younger workforce.

That used to be the future, but the reality is it’s the now.

GB: How have we seen this change in educational pedagogy reshape business?

These were the people corporates wanted to hire – young, hungry, self-motivated, independent thinkers, who now wanted nothing to do with joining a company and paying their dues.

The entrepreneurial era

RD: The shift in education was the quake that initiated big waves of change. The first boom opened many people's eyes that the tools and structures had changed. Previously, people graduating from universities with bold new ideas in technology and science would have done one of two things. They'd have gone on to do a Ph.D., or they'd go into the R&D department of a big corporate. After the boom, they realized that they could develop their big idea outside the ivory towers and the ring-fence of corporate hierarchy because information and connection to other experts are readily available on the internet. And these were the people corporates wanted to hire – young, hungry, self-motivated, independent thinkers, who now wanted nothing to do with joining a company and paying their dues.

Here’s a great example. A group of young engineers developed a satellite ready to go into space for 1% of the cost of a NASA satellite from the confines of an apartment in Argentina. They knew they didn't have all the answers, but they knew how to get them and network. They got a bit of information here and a bit there, and they connected with colleagues in India. All information is open-source; they were not secretive, and they just got it done.

GB: The era of the entrepreneur. I remember this as a time of radical change and being amazed at what people could create so quickly and with so much less.

RD: They broke down the corporate model. We saw the tools of doing business change. The speed of a business build changed radically with the open access to information and expertise in the market on the web.

Millennials come from a new perspective. I don’t sell my soul to the company; I sell my services.

Battering the leadership pyramid

RD: The next wave was a new concept named agility. For decades, company structure looked like a pyramid - a large group of employees at the bottom, various layers of specialization and management in the middle working their way up the ladder to an executive team, with the all-knowing CEO sitting at the top. People started to question the need for middle management, the hierarchy of supervision, and layers of oversight. The proponents of agility said that companies should be able at the interface to put a team together that knows what the customer wants and can deliver it. They scooped out 80% of the middle management and put together teams of smart people who knew what to do and how to do it. With each new problem, the best person to lead the search for a solution emerged from within the team. Leaders earned their authority. It didn’t flow from a position or a title. The result? More efficiency, more cost-effective, better products, better customer service. And probably more innovation because you’ve created teams in which more diverse people are talking to one another.

GB: And talking together in very different ways. It seems to me that the things people used to rely on their company for – training, development, resources, networks, new knowledge – can all be found on the web, in real-time. Discoveries as they are happening. Any sense of dependence on and maybe even loyalty to a company has waned dramatically.

RD: Welcome to the gig economy, another wave. No 9:00 to 5:00 days, 40-hour weeks, two weeks paid vacation, all federal holidays, and 20 days PTO. Gig workers are hired to do a job by a deadline. They join teams when their expertise is needed and leave when the need is met. Baby Boomers joined a company and stayed with that company for life. Gen Xers joined the company, spent three years learning, went to a better company, spent four to five years learning, and went to a better company. Millennials come from a new perspective. I don’t sell my soul to the company; I sell my services. The most recent statistics tell us that nearly 45% of millennials do not work in what we know as jobs. They manage multiple gigs.

The reality is that if you want your organization to behave in a younger, more current way, you will want younger leadership.

Co-CEOs or No CEOs?

GB: Understanding these waves of change, I can see why people want their governments, organizations, and employers to behave in a younger, more current way. Do you perceive a new leadership model emerging?

RD: It almost has to be a group leadership model. Different leadership roles in different places at different moments. The collective responses of these leaders will determine the best outcomes, which is so different from the current pyramid structure in which we look to Superman at the top to decide. There have been companies trying Co-CEOs now, but a company that requires no CEO? That is a risk that will warrant a pat on the back one day.

GB: Risk is a huge part of this shift. It seems we're moving from a time of risk aversion to embracing it.

RD: It is. And the question becomes how you bring these tech-savvy, risk-taking, status quo is bad, younger people together with the experienced, seen it all, done it all, status quo loving older people.

I think we have to set up practices, incentives, structures, governance that harnesses the experience of one world and the exuberance of another. I believe when you bring the two together, you can start doing really good things.

It starts small with simply getting to know each other. What do we have in common? What makes us different? What do we each bring to the table? What do we each lack? What can we learn from each other?

GB: What are your thoughts? Will leadership succession skip a generation – the last of the Boomers and Gen X – to promote Millennials?

RD: You know, all we talk about is the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials. Maybe a little bit of Generation Z is coming through now. But if you look at the age brackets, Generation X is done for. They're not senior enough to ascend to the top roles, and they haven't lived any of these new ways. The timing of all that we’ve discussed will be the stake in the heart of Gen X. They've come up in the era when leadership was defined by who survived, and that model is no longer relevant.

Millennials have grown up in the ways that successful organizations need to operate now. I wouldn’t want a dinosaur that’s come up through the old organization trying to make it work because they’ve never lived it and never experienced it. I think if you’re really serious about shaking up your organization, you need to dip down into the 35 and 40-year-olds to tap new leadership.

GB: Thanks, Rob, for a great conversation.


Robert Davies is an Affiliate Partner with Banyan Global FBA and a trusted advisor to owners and founders. Before joining Banyan, Robert was a Senior Partner with the Boston Consulting Group.

Gifford Booth is the CEO of The TAI Group, a global human interaction consulting firm.

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