I've interviewed 400 CEOs. I've seen how those with PR, technology, or people skills have a better shot than ever at rising to the top.
- Author and journalist James Ashton has interviewed more than 400 CEOs in his career.
- He says technology, PR, and HR are challenging finance and operations as routes to the top job.
- Ashton cites the leaders who reflect this new trend at companies from HBO to General Motors.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Headhunters will scour the world of work for appropriate leaders to take the helm of corporations post-pandemic, and it’s clear to me that many of them will come from unexpected sources.
I’ve interviewed 400 CEOs — from the UK Royal Mint’s Anne Jessopp to Verizon’s Hans Vestberg — over my 20-year career as a business journalist and for my new book. I’ve detected a subtle shift in where leaders are coming from.
The traditional route to the top — operational and financial roles that businesses long regarded as weighty enough experience for running a company — is facing competition.
As demand for a different mix of skills emerges, areas that were once regarded as lightweight disciplines are being evaluated differently.
Specifically, it’s those who are well-versed at dealing with people, communications, and technology who have a better shot at the top job than ever before.
It should be obvious why. These three areas now represent a leader’s biggest opportunity — and biggest potential headache.
Soft skills, such as ensuring a company is looking after its workers, came to the fore during a period of extended remote working. Even in normal times, the modern corporation is more porous than ever thanks to Glassdoor and other social-media channels. Technology binds everything together.
These once secondary concerns — dismissed as mere cost centers or support functions — have been elevated in the corporate consciousness.
Where once divisional leaders had the power as CEOs in waiting, now human resources, corporate affairs and technology cut vital horizontals across their organizations. Experts in these fields have become adept at propelling themselves forward, picking up broader business experience and profit and loss responsibility as they go.
A chief HR officer’s traits overlap with a CEO’s
Purpose, loyalty, and trust occupy the minds of leaders and their staff. Intellectual capital has become even more important as asset-light firms have proliferated.
A 2014 study by the academic Dave Ulrich and the headhunter Ellie Filler found that the traits of chief human-resources officers are more similar to a CEOs’ than those of other C-suite lieutenants.
The dam has yet to burst — but there are signs it will.
When Mary Barra was made CEO of General Motors in 2014, her elevation was considered a big win for people officers. On her way to the top of the Chevrolet and Cadillac automaker, she served for two years as vice president of global human resources.
Jessopp joined Britain’s 1,100-year-old Royal Mint as its HR director in 2008, becoming CEO a decade later after taking on broader responsibility. She earned her spurs early on, calming a suspicious workforce when the UK government changed the ownership structure of the coin maker.
Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of the UK homelessness charity Crisis, started out as an employee-relations officer at the electronics conglomerate GEC but switched to the nonprofit sector and then stepped up to lead the disability charity Scope, where, as HR director, he had been running a large change program.
CEOs who communicate well are key in a crisis
The pandemic was a reminder that a CEO who communicates well is key in a crisis — and can be at any time there are complex stakeholders to manage. It means public-relations personnel, who used to aspire to run their own trade body as a career pinnacle, can now aim higher.
Their pinup who showed it was possible to use their skills as a launchpad to the CEO suite is Richard Plepler. He was HBO’s chief communications officer before leading the pay-TV network for six years until 2019.
Even a politician like former UK Prime Minister David Cameron was a TV PR man at Carlton Communications long before he entered politics — though few would want to emulate his recent lobbying exploits.
Sally Bolton, the first female chief executive of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which stages the Wimbledon championships every summer, was recruited as the head of corporate affairs in 2016.
But promoting a communicator to the top is no guarantee that the corporate message won’t get muddled.
John Fallon led corporate affairs for the UK energy provider Powergen before he took over the education firm Pearson, but he announced in 2019 he would stand down after a tumultuous period in which the company’s stock fell by more than half.
The communicators are coming — but even they can’t always explain away poor performance.
Technology affects every aspect of a corporation
Few industries have swung faster to digital platforms than gaming, whose growth spurt in lockdown was slowed only by the lack of sporting events on which to have a wager.
The UK bookmaker William Hill was well-prepared for the shift, having promoted its chief digital officer, Ulrik Bengtsson, to chief executive in 2019, when online betting already made up more than one-third of group revenues.
Now being taken over by the US casino group Caesars Entertainment, William Hill offers a template to other firms, as well as for chief information officers, chief technology officers, and similar execs.
Their function, once internally focused, might variously be responsible for keeping the organization safe in cyberspace, slick customer contact, and innovation that drives sales. As technology affects every aspect of a corporation, there is no reason that those who have mastered it can’t take over too.
That was Vestberg’s route to leading Verizon. After running the Swedish communications-equipment maker Ericsson, he arrived as chief technology officer in 2017 when the US telecoms giant was spending billions of dollars on a new 5G network. He rose to CEO the following year.
Boards are always being coached to cast their net wider for key appointments.
Diversity has a long way to go, but this growing functional diversity for finding the next CEO has to be an encouraging trend.
James Ashton writes and speaks on leadership and business. He has been a financial journalist for more than 20 years, during which he was city editor and executive editor at the Evening Standard and independent titles and city editor at The Sunday Times. He is the author of “The Nine Types of Leader,” published by Kogan Page.
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