The search for the CEO of Unity: An Interview with Shruti Bhargava
Blogs 2nd April 2020 7 minutes read
Kai Adams, Managing Partner of Green Park's Charities & Social Enterprise Practice, recaps his earlier predictions for the 2020's and how they all came true in a fortnight.
A year ago, a friend asked me to stand up in front of a crowd of people I’d never met and tell them how I thought leadership would change in the forthcoming decade. Using twenty slides at 20 seconds a slide. With a mouthful of wotsits.
Ok, the last bit was just poor timing on my part – I didn’t know a cheesy puff was capable of extracting all the moisture in your body in under three chews – but the premise stands.
It was all conjecture and tongue in cheek daftness on my part. But then the C-Word happened and suddenly some of my thinking isn’t so far-fetched. Except that what I’d predicted to change over the course of ten years appears to have happened in little over a week.
These are brutally challenging times for the sector. For everyone, I guess, but for CEOs in particular. Whether you’re an old hand or a first-timer, a novice or a known-quantity, shift happened. Bigly.
By way of celebrating those amazing leaders doing all they can to keep the sector going, here’s my light-hearted (and largely unchanged from a year ago) brain-dump on how it was supposed to play out for you between now and the Roaring Thirties. And how it all came true within a single fortnight in early 2020.
Before we travel into the future, let me take you back a-ways to the late Triassic of recent years. A fertile, warm, rich time of great bio-diversity and abundant food. It’s a time when large dinosaurs roam the earth. Unknown and unseen, a huge meteor is heading for the Yucatan peninsula. An asteroid that will change the world for ever. It’s extinction time.
In this world, size matters. The Heroic Leader presides. He – and it usually is a He – is God-like, top down, omniscient, omnipotent. He is all about balance sheet growth. He is the voice of the sector. He is the apex leader. He has … gravitas.
Something is changing in the climate. The clouds of media attacks, of political malaise and public scrutiny are choking. The pressure for income and attention is excruciating. The titans, too big or too dumb to adapt, are starting to fail but refuse to acknowledge it.
The Networked Leaders (by definition they’re plural) appear to have mastered – have co-opted? – the language of collaboration, co-production, diversity or digital disruption, but they’re still heavily reliant on black book relationships, power networks, echo chambers and invisible hands. Like some latterday Avengers, they’re still “heroic”. And like the Avengers, there are big egos at play. Unlike the Avengers, however, they rarely assemble.
A time of turbulence and tremors. Tension fills the air. Someone ripped up the playbook. Evidence is emergent, not absolute. Truth is fallible. Power is shifting. The sector – whisper it – isn’t perfect!! Impact is what happens if Bruce Willis doesn’t save the day. Data is still just a character from The Goonies (look it up if you’re under 40). Partnership is the suspension of mutual loathing in pursuit of profit. Language is used and abused. Virtue signalling beats virtuous circles. Bombast beats belief. Diversity is a tick box. Digital is a tick box on a website.
A few leaders – an important few – are evolving. Are drawn to each other. Their thinking is fresh and exciting. They are more open, transparent, vulnerable. They talk comfortably about risk and failure.
They engage. They listen. They bloody listen!
These Inclusive Leaders understand the merits of user-led design. Of system thinking. They blur boundaries. They cross sectors. They are comfortable with ambiguity and ambivalence. They will be the generation of the future. If they can cut through the noise.
Society is reeling from complex & multiple challenges. Demand is through the roof. Funding is through the floor. Trust in institutions has plummeted. Government doesn’t get it. Everyone has feet of clay.
Nearly everyone. Some have been busy adapting. The dinosaurs of a few years ago have turned into birds. Radical new ideas, carried on their wings, multiply and flourish.
With diversification comes the realisation that it’ll take more than just one organisation – one individual - to sort things out. Organisations, like people, are becoming more fluid. Realising they can’t do it all, leaders start to focus on building more effective – dare we say it, diverse?! – teams with more delegation and devolved responsibilities. Leadership is shared.
This CEO doesn’t have the answers, they create the environment for others to find them. They are the Chief ENABLING Officer.
This is where it gets really weird. Noise in the external environment is deafening. Boundaries between sectors are increasingly blurred while those between communities are paradoxically more clearly demarcated than ever. Polarisation and othering is rife, tribalism the norm. There are more choices than ever, as long as they’re filtered. Attention spans are shorter. Sound-bites rule. Loyalty is relative. Support transient. Everyone is a sceptic. Everyone is an expert. Except the experts. We’re tired of them.
This is the time of the Surrealist Leader. Their focus will be on consumer trends, behavioural insight, and movement building. Knowing how to pitch themselves to a changeable, impatient, easily distracted audience is an art-form. Being able to communicate a distinct and distinctive choice could mean the difference between success and failure.
Tell a story. Make me laugh. Go viral. Please. Please. DON’T GO VIRAL!!
Put another way, I’m a red apple in a bowl of green apples. You don’t like apples? I’m an orange. Too much fruit? I’m a bicycle.
With all the challenges being faced regarding strategy, scrutiny, stability, sustainability, staffing, systems, social media and splintered communities, the onus is now on agile, adaptable organisations. Organisations which are starting to become more genuinely diverse. Different questions are being asked creating dynamic tensions and difficult, necessary frictions across whole systems which need to be managed in real time.
Income generator. Policy influencer. Consumer champion. Inclusive leader. Digital guru. Consummate networker. Firefighter. Emergency Services. Spiritual Guide. Philosopher. Priest. Poet. And all-round good egg:
The Vitruvian Leader has to be the consummate renaissance leader: she is convenor, collaborator, conductor, captain of industry and charismatic co producer. She is catalyst and crucible both.
See 2025, only faster, harder, better, bigger, longer.
The public is expectant. Impatient. Exacting. The media is more insistent. Politicians more inclined to outsource judgement to others.
If innovation is the culture of asking the right questions, these Leaders – more diverse visibly and cognitively – are asking (and being asked) questions all the time. They are high energy, high exposure. They are high challenge and high support.
Faced with a legion of arm-chair critics, resilience is going to be key:
"You’re enabled so why aren’t you achieving your impact?"
"You’re plugged in so why aren’t you achieving your impact?"
"You’ve got all the data so why aren’t you achieving your impact?"
"You’re a co-productive, collaborative, competitive charity so why aren’t you achieving your impact?"
"Problems need solving now......WHY AREN'T YOU SOLVING THEM?????????"
You’re the 5G Leader.
Work forces and workplaces as we know them have changed completely. Organisations have become more distributed. They work via Zoom. Via Teams. Via Skype. If they can work out how to use them. If broadband holds up. The communication overhead is huge. Story telling is even more important than ever – in hiring, retaining, galvanising, exhorting, convincing and creating change.
If leaders were already dealing with clumsy stakeholders staggering around in their world like a drunk on a wobble board, making a mess and asking someone else to get them out of it, now there’s a decent chance they’ll do it beaming straight onto your desktop as you juggle a funding bid, a Ministerial briefing and animal charades with a three-year-old.
The Virtual Leader is permanently on; accessible, available, answerable.
Now more than ever, PURPOSE is key. With so much noise, so much disruption, so much disintermediation, so much transformation, so much disintermediation, so much information, so much opinion and so much competition, organisations need to be really clear about why they exist and why they should continue to exist. Leadership must be delivered with clarity, courage and conviction.
The Cyborg CEO, a perfect blend of human tech, has the same directives as Robocop: “Serve the public trust", "Protect the innocent", "Uphold the law”. Like that other famous cyborg in Terminator 2, they also have to hunt down the T-1000 (the problems in society) and eliminate them, while like that pesky T-1000, the problems keep morphing.
A genuinely engaged and engaging leader with a beating heart and a core of steel, the Cyborg CEO must be ruthless on behalf of the mission they serve.
More organisations will choose to operate with purpose and the current boundaries between sectors may simply be erased. In this new period – the Anthropocene – leadership will be more complex, more exciting and more demanding than ever.
You, the current and future generation of leaders, will have learned to embrace disruption, develop resilience, engage empathetically, be connective, demonstrate mental clarity, think like a system, act like an entrepreneur, be digitally fluent, harness innovation, be inclusive, be vulnerable, be authentic, be great.
You will lead with purpose.