CEO’s have short lifespans and don’t have time to focus on people. Is this fair?

It was once said that CEO’s of large companies have short lifespans and don’t have the luxury of focusing of people issues. This view is simply wrong.

By Chris Sheppardson, Managing Director, EP

I recall speaking at a conference as far back as 2003. One delegate, a board director of a FTSE 100, stood up and noted that the average life span of a FTSE CEO was around 28 months – the point being made was that it was almost “naïve” to believe that they would focus on people issues as they did not have that luxury to do so.

Since that time, I have heard this comment time after time. It does miss the point. The role of leadership is not just about results and self-serving but about the overall business – including yes shareholders but also its people. It is not a good enough attitude to suggest that a CEO does have the luxury to focus on people issues – it goes with the job and the territory. This attitude is not just wrong, it is one of the key reasons why investment in L&D has fallen and we now need to say that it is not an acceptable attitude.

It does come down to what one believes leadership is. But most may adhere to a comment from one industry elder who noted:

“Leaders need to surely leave a legacy that is better than the one we inherited?”

Or another who noted, “If we lose sight that the industry is about people, we do not have much left to fall back on”.

Research has indicated that relative investment into L&D has fallen from 2% to 1%. Moreover, traditional processes are beginning to become wearisome and unengaging. So surely change must be pressing – especially given that there is a new generation entering the workplace?

It is a fair question especially when one considers that research indicates that most executives need to reinvent themselves three times during their career and does any L&D programme really prepare executives for this task?

At the same time, skills are changing so fast that it is estimated that most people’s job specs will change 20% in the next five years alone. There will 8% new occupations created in the next ten years and over the next twenty years, 60% of jobs will have fundamentally changed.

Given all the above, it is reasonable to suggest that the one thing that people need, in their development, is the ability to mentally adapt to a shifting landscape and significant changes in the landscape. It is an old argument that one can teach skills but cannot teach character and it will be character that will determine those that are able to reinvent themselves, learn new skills and adjust to a changing world.

However there is a responsibility to develop talent and arguably the core focus on development should be as much mental as skill based – developing mental resilience, breadth of thinking, lateral thinking, the taking on of new knowledge. Ironically most companies complain of the opposite – of a narrowness of thinking and action, a lack of mental resilience, a decrease in real knowledge.

So the challenge is on and the task is to ensure that we all challenge the way many learn and develop in the modern environment as the stats and research do say that there is work that needs to be done.

The good news is that to achieve this change is neither expensive nor hard – just requires a different focus and approach. Rightly or wrongly, companies do today possess the need to develop the mind-set of a generation that has come through a different education system; a system that arguably has prepared the young to pass exams but not be worldly or handle with ease the challenges of the work environment. The real change needed is a twin tracked process that that does focus on both skill development and also mental development. We do need to invest in talent as this has fallen away over the last decade as companies have found their way through austerity and a challenging economy.

Change is needed. We need to think differently and more broadly. There are real structural issues but these will not be changed with ease so we need to do what we can. This rationale is what lies behind the work that EP is doing in bringing the worlds of sport and business together – to broaden minds. When most attend a networking event, they attend only events with their own circles. We are excellent at networking with ourselves. Let’s be broader. Let’s cross boundaries – let’s learn from other sectors, other industries. Let’s place learning and people back on the board agenda as it really is key.