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Being a CEO 20 years ago was a far simpler proposition than it is today.

A constantly evolving set of skills, character traits and familiarities are required from a CEO for a business to function effectively today, that were not required  previously.

In discussing these new requirements, I want to introduce this concept to the CEO discussion, “range”. It refers to the totality of subjects a CEO needs a base understanding of, in order to make solid decisions. Absent of this knowledge, the obvious consequence is that important changes in the business landscape will go undetected; and this will leave a business open to fatal disruption, impaired performance and decreased competitiveness.

Acquiring this ‘range’ is a rewarding journey for those CEOs who are adamant about remaining relevant and informed.

But it is not easily won. It requires curiosity and humility. Curiosity to provide the energy and zest to follow an always-on quest for improvement; and humility to ensure the openness to learn, to be wrong and to stretch oneself into new, and often uncomfortable, areas.

Reading Thank you for being late by Thomas Friedman clarifies just how jam-packed the world is with fast-moving themes. My personal take-out from this book is that I was drawn to some areas, which I could overcome with reading and research, while I was less drawn to others that were going to require a creative approach to get around. And, it would make no sense for me to get stronger in areas in which I was already sufficiently skilled, only to ignore the ones in which I was weak and potentially disinterested.

This speaks to the very essence of the CEO position – it is a tough role precisely because it requires a single leader to be ‘excellently generalist’ meaning that more than a working knowledge is required of just about everything. In guiding international groups of 20-plus CEOs on various types of immersions, I have experienced just how rare it is to find such individuals; my sense is that only about 10% of CEOs have the full set of competencies required to be excellent in their roles.

This is where curiosity comes into play – it is the singular shared character trait of this 10%, in that the most gifted of the group have a genuine, active interest in seeking out new ways of doing things, new knowledge and new influencers. And, for this 10%, I found there was a very clear correlation between their skill sets and how their businesses were performing.

Lastly – and this is me sticking out my neck a little and offering a still-forming opinion – the full-range CEOs had a particular set of qualities about them that seems uniform: They are great listeners; They are loathe to pronounce emphatic views as fact; They are moderate and can see paradoxes and They are interested in considering views that oppose their own.

A relevant example: Advertising agencies are a great example of a sector requiring great range from a CEO. Just note, for example, Sir Martin Sorrell’s yet-to-be-revealed ‘agency of the future’ as an indication of the sector’s fast evolution. Law firms, investment banks and automobile manufacturers could make for equally good examples.

For CEOs of these companies, a working knowledge of the following is required:

  • Human capital shifts: the advent of ‘portfolio’ workers who seek to work at multiple places;
  • Technological advances: the digitisation of everything;
  • Strategic changes: large companies taking their advertising in-house;
  • Financial shifts: the commodification of advertising and the resulting pressure on fees and margins; and
  • Leadership: the realisation that a single leader will not have sufficient capabilities and that a quorum of leaders needs to be built around the CEO in order to make the ‘right’ choices for a business.
The key take-outs:
  • What you currently know is likely not enough, and it will definitely not be sufficient in the future.
  • ‘Range’ needs to be sought out and built up – an organic accumulation will likely not be enough.
  • A global orientation is required, because local knowledge simply will not paint a rich or textured enough picture.
Some evocative questions:
  1. Have you formed a view on what CEO-ship 2.0 looks like for your particular sector?
  2. Who is the ‘model CEO’ that you plan to emulate or seek advice from?
  3. Which thought-leaders do you have access to in the areas in which you could improve?

If you would like to chat more about this topic, email Lockstep CEO, Rowan Belchers, directly:

Jonathan-Rowan Belchers

Jonathan-Rowan Belchers

“I’m driven by the truth that one remarkable leader can change the fortunes of many. And I’m committed to championing those leaders across all continents.”

With an enduring passion for high performance and exceptional leadership, Jonathan-Rowan has advanced the footprint of Lockstep since founding it in 2006. A graduate of both Harvard and Berkeley and a certified business coach, he has 20+ years in the leadership advisory sector and lectures at a number of foremost business schools. He is an artist at heart – an avid reader, musician and painter.

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