Professional accountancy is not for wimps. Drawing on her many years of experience, Alison Thomas offers some light-hearted advice
This article was first published in the September 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Q Is it better to have a visionary CEO, like Elon Musk or the late Steve Jobs, or would you rather work for a company whose CEO is more the captain of the team?
A You imply that visionary leaders can’t be team players. I’ve no idea if the ‘genius and ivory tower syndrome’. holds true in real life, though.
My knowledge of Musk’s management style is based solely on what I’ve read in the press. But I’ve seen the movie Steve Jobs (it’s Hollywood – it must be true), and I’m glad not to have been subject to his daily whims.
But that doesn’t diminish the extraordinary place that such visionaries have in corporate history. They are the leaders who inspire disruptive change, who re-imagine our daily lives and sometimes even improve things.
Let’s assume visionary leaders all have the impoverished social skills of Hollywood’s take on Jobs. Does that matter? Yes, but it’s not an insurmountable issue, provided they recognise that genius on its own is not enough. If they find someone to work with them who can inspire and empower the people needed to deliver, there’s the potential to attain the best of all worlds: a radical vision, delivered.
Q What attributes would you seek if advertising for a new CEO?
A This is a tricky question, and why I’m not in recruitment. I guess the no-brainer is that CEOs need some sort of track record in delivering whatever the company has as its priority. Beyond that, I think it handy if they grasp what the company is about – why it exists, etc. Some clearly do, but all too many seem to have forgotten, if they ever knew in the first place.
Having some idea of what they’d like the company to achieve and how to get there is also helpful. And no job spec would be complete without the mandatory ‘inspiring the troops’ bit.
However, there’s one attribute I admire that is rarely seen in adverts for CEOs: humility. Yes, they need to have sufficient confidence to lead the company through thick and thin, but there is little more tedious than CEOs who are determined to rip up everything that predates them.
Even when radical change is needed, there’s a cultural and historical context within which it needs to happen.
Perhaps culture-blindness is one of the reasons why CEO tenure is typically so short-lived.
Q Just as we have mandatory rotation for auditors, should there be mandatory rotation of CEOs?
A You’re right – some CEOs out there are past their sell-by date – but the word ‘mandatory’ doesn’t feel right. There are few things in life that sit well in a black and white framework – including corporate governance. Too many perfectly respectable babies would be thrown out with the uncompromising bathwater of mandatory rotation.
This is a decision for the owners of companies. It’s they who need to decide whether the person appointed to manage the company on their behalf is up to snuff. And it needs to be a decision that is binding.
Q Our CEO describes us as the firm’s number one asset. Yet we are treated like peasants. Is it time for me to create a Glassdoor account?
A I understand the attraction of venting frustration online. There are few more satisfying sights than all those thumbs-up. But I’m not sure it’s where you should begin. Most firms have well-established channels for raising concerns. Doing so in a constructive fashion – with documented examples of any apparent contradiction between word and deed – may help management to understand the reputational risk they run.
Of course, if they refuse to recognise the inconsistencies of their ways, then you still have a few options left. First, find a happier home. Second, unleash the hounds of social media. Just do so with care. The hounds have a nasty habit of turning round to bite you.
Alison Thomas, consultant
"It’s helpful when CEOs grasp what the company is about – why it exists. Many seem to have forgotten, if they ever knew in the first place"