What Makes Business Leaders Great
Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
WHO ARE THE BEST BUSINESS LEADERS IN AMERICA? WHAT MAKES them great? What can we learn from them as we try to turn our own aspirations into reality?
These three questions have driven us from the moment that we began this project in April of 1997. They are relatively simple questions to ask. But they are extremely difficult to answer.
We had originally intended to open Lessons from the Top with an anecdote describing a real phone call we had received from a corporate board member asking us to launch an executive search for a new chief executive officer.
The board member, someone we had worked with over a period of years, wanted us to develop a list of candidates who could succeed the company's CEO, a man who had just informed the board that he intended to retire at year's end.
Up until that point, the phone call was fairly typical. Recruiting senior executives and board members to build our clients' management teams is what we do at Spencer Stuart. Each year, as one of the world's largest executive search firms, we interview over 40,000 executives around the world, in the course of more than 4,000 assignments that we conduct out of 50 offices located in 25 countries. Our recent assignments have included recruiting new CEOs to lead AT&T, Delta Airlines, Quaker Oats, Reader's Digest, J. Crew, and Weyerhaeuser.
Spencer Stuart has been recruiting such top talent for more than 40 years. So this particular phone call did not set off any unusual alarms. What was surprising, though, was his next request: Our client asked us to advise the board as well about what they should be looking for in their next CEO. Not only what industry background, company size, and geographic breadth, but the more subtle and potentially important characteristics. Who is the right kind of leader? What kind of attributes should he or she have?
The reason this brought us up short was that it was one of a number of similar requests we had recently received from our clients, firms that range from venture capital-backed start-ups, to some of America's largest companies.
Given the growing interest in this question, we decided to forgo opening the book with an elaborate story, and plunge right into the heart of the issue.
What, in fact, makes someone a great business leader? What does it really take to lead an organization successfully in today's ever more competitive and fast-moving world economy?
When we considered this carefully, we realized that it is not surprising that these questions are surfacing more frequently. They are the very things that individuals, whether given the responsibility of running an organization or managing a department, must answer and answer quickly.
As the deposed former chief executives of AT&T, Kmart, and Sunbeam can well attest, managers are being given less and less time to make a difference today.
Operating in what feels like an ever-tightening vise--being squeezed by global competition on one side and a rapidly changing, technology-driven business landscape on the other--it is only natural for managers to look for comfort in what has worked in the past. Unfortunately, as they have learned the hard way, we are no longer operating under the old rules. When a company's board loses confidence in its CEO, it often takes decisive action. And conducting a search for a new leader is often the action it takes. It is often also the point where we come in.
What Spencer Stuart Does
Executive search is a specialized form of management consulting that focuses on defining a company's leadership requirements as a function of its strategy, and then identifies, interviews, and recruits the most appropriate candidate to execute that strategy.
Developing insight into business leaders' careers and lives--what makes them "tick"--is essential for us to fulfill our mandate, as we set out to find the right executive.
To assess a candidate for a top position, we perform an in-depth appraisal of the executive's career accomplishments, management style, obstacles overcome, mistakes made and lessons learned, leadership philosophy, formative life experiences, and personal and professional ambitions. Given that executives are often competing for these high-profile appointments, it is in their interest to make certain that we understand their industries, companies, and careers as much as possible.
Meeting with all of these executives, and developing insights into their business successes and what makes leaders great, has provided us with the privilege of learning from many of the top business leaders in the world. We have grown professionally and personally as a result and wanted to share what we have learned. This was one of the principal reasons behind writing this book.
To give these lessons about success and leadership maximum impact, we decided that it was critical to hear from the very best. And rather than simply subjectively picking the "best" leaders to study, we felt compelled to apply an objective and rigorous analytical process. This decision was partially the result of the fact-based, analytical approach that was instilled in both of us earlier in our careers as management consultants at McKinsey & Company.
So we undertook to do what no one else has done before. We put together a rigorous methodology aimed at identifying the very best business leaders in America and then interviewed those leaders at length to discover why they have been so successful.
There are, of course, entire libraries of books that analyze key leadership qualities. But most are rather academic in their approach, or are limited by a single author's perspective.
And while there are scores of annual rankings of top business managers, our review suggests that these tabulations have neither the requisite analytical rigor nor the depth to elucidate the stories behind the rankings.
Neither approach seems to bring to life what it takes to be a great leader in a way that can be applied to real life.
In light of this, we set the ambitious dual goals of:
1) Being as analytically sound as possible in constructing our list of business leaders, and
2) Articulating their stories in as personal and approachable a style as possible.
Based on the methodology described below and in Chapter 3, we created the list of business leaders that is as close as we could come to answering our first question, "Who are the best business leaders in America?"