Do you know your CEO? The eight essential leadership skills

The Marketing Society has collaborated with Accenture to find out something all marketers need to know: what makes chief executives and senior business leaders tick. Rachel Barnes reports.

The customer is king. While it is a cliche, it is also a core tenet for all marketers. However, have you ever thought about who your first customer is? Before a marketer's great ideas and grand plans make it out of the building and on to the shelves or screens, buy-in from the chief executive is the first sales pitch.

'Chief executives and business leaders matter (to marketers) as they are, arguably, a marketing director's first and most important customer,' explains Suki Thompson, founding partner of marketing and agency search consultancy OysterCatchers and chairman of The Marketing Society.

Knowing your CEO and understanding what drives the best business bosses is vital to success in the role of marketing director.

Over the past year, The Marketing Society, in collaboration with Accenture, has interviewed and recorded the views of 40 chief executives from across the sectors.

The research paints a picture of life being tough at the top. EasyJet chief executive Carolyn McCall sums it up thus: 'There is nowhere to hide, particularly from the market. You get knocked about regularly by the shareholders, press and customers. You need to continue and not be waylaid, you can't be downhearted, and you need a vision and a purpose.'

In the research, CEOs were asked to rate a series of leadership attributes on a five-point scale from 'unimportant' through to 'critical' (see graph below, click to enlarge).

As well as producing a rating for each attribute, respondents were encouraged to draw on their experience and suggest key leadership skills that they believed were vital for success. From their answers, eight essential capabilities were identified.

For anyone looking to bang the marketing drum, knowing what makes your CEO tick, and where your role sits within the boss' circle of influence, should be top of the agenda.

1. Give a clear sense of purpose: a vision, not necessarily visionary

The CEOs were unanimous that the ability to think strategically is the most critical skill. They believe their key role is to provide vision and purpose for the company. Less than a third felt that their role was to be visionary or a larger-than-life personality.

'It is more important to get the organisation behind a vision than to follow a visionary.'

Neil Berkett, CEO, Virgin Media (right)

'The notion of a visionary has been chronically overplayed. I characterise the CEO as a strategic thinker who is visible, flexible and promotes basic principles.'

Ian Ailles, former CEO, Thomas Cook

'There's the "three Rs" about being "relevant, realistic and relentless", but in terms of what I would ensure, it is about having a clear vision of the future, with the right resources, talent and investment decisions along the way ... which deliver against that vision'

Jill McDonald, CEO & president, Northern Europe Division, McDonald's

2. Bring the customer into the boardroom

It is perhaps no surprise that customer focus ranked highly. As customers become more demanding, with increased expectations of what constitutes good value and service, organisations must work harder to understand their customers' needs and preferences and deliver on the brand promise. What is surprising, however, is that not all companies and boardrooms are completely customer-centric.

'The generational divide is disappearing. Over-65s are now teaching each other... Understanding how people behave and how to target them provides huge competitive advantage.'

Dan Cobley, managing director, Google UK (right)

'There is a need for more voices at the board table to represent the customer. Businesses can tend to be very introspective - understanding themselves far better than they understand their customers. It is my job to make sure that the customer is reflected in all the discussions and decisions that are made.'

Steve Easterbrook, CEO, Wagamama

'Recognise that the sole pursuit of profit is fruitless. Serve customers well, treat your staff well and have fun. Profit is invariably the outcome.'

Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO, Virgin Money

3. Communicate clearly - in-house and outside The next-most-important skill is to communicate clearly, both within the organisation and beyond it.

At a time when more people 'Like' videos on YouTube than vote in elections, it is easy to see how the digital world has empowered the consumer on a mass scale.

However, it is not just in the external environment where good communication is a prerequisite of good leadership. One key aspect of communication is how CEOs motivate and energise their workforce. Effective communication is no longer an add-on; it must be a core competence.

'It's not enough to be a smart strategist and financially astute: communication is vital. My communication skills have moved from a "2" to a "4", but in the future, all CEOs will need to be a "5-plus".'

Tom Falk, chairman and CEO, Kimberly-Clark

'It's important as a CEO now that you understand the power of social media. If you want to win your customers' faith, you have to go onto Facebook and Twitter and say, "Sorry, we've made a mistake".'

Carolyn McCall, CEO, easyJet

'"Storyteller-in-chief" is one of the key jobs of any CEO: coalescing all stakeholders around a single version of the corporate truth ... living and telling that story.'

Stevie Spring, CEO, Luxup (right)

'Some CEOs are thriving in a more responsive environment in which they can communicate much more freely with their consumers. Others seem doomed as they fight to control a one-way message, and fail to do so.'

Tim Davie, acting director-general, BBC

4. Change: be flexible but not floppy

Being flexible was generally agreed to be an important requirement of a CEO. The speed and scale of business requires them to have a flexible approach to their own leadership style. Leaders need to be able to accommodate an array of variables in decision-making, such as urgency, risk level, time constraints and regional and cultural differences.

'There's always a role for fear. Particularly if there's a business in crisis, a burning platform is very helpful. The trite saying would be: how do you change a business from being very good crisis managers, responding to burning platforms ... to having a burning ambition, which appears in everything they do?'

Martin Glenn, former CEO and chairman, Birds Eye Iglo

'Our partners are very important to us - if any of them stop being partners it's serious. You can't simply let your partner dictate the economic terms of your relationship ... so you must invest heavily in making that work.'

Jan-Pieter Lips, EMEA regional president, Aimia (Nectar)

5. Take risks but don't bet the company

Handling risk was fifth on the list of attributes. Given the rapid emergence of competitors, changing consumer dynamics and the unpredictable nature of fast-moving markets, it was perhaps inevitable that it is seen as a vital competency. However, the extent of that risk varies according to ownership of the business and the stage of maturity it has reached.

What is true for all, though, is that, with constant change now an ever-present feature of the market, leaders need to be comfortable with uncertainty and be ready to change tack when storm clouds gather.

'A ship is safest in the harbour, but that's not what it's designed for ... CEOs running businesses have to take risk.'

Mark Wood, board director, RAC (and holds other chairmanships)

'The only company that might never make a mistake is the one that lives in a changeless market and does nothing new. Progress is about going into the unknown and therefore embodies risk. Risk-taking implies a possible loss, otherwise it would be called "sure-thing-taking". However, the risk decision must not involve so many resources that, if the project goes wrong, it potentially jeopardises the organisation's ability to survive and prosper.'

Sir Paul Judge, chairman, Schroder Income Growth Fund (and CIM president)

'Too often people urge companies to take risk when it is the need to manage risk that is paramount. Risk appetite anchored (to) strategy and values is a concept with potential application beyond the bounds of financial services where it was conceived.'

Benny Higgins, CEO, Tesco Bank

'With 90-day analysts there is no room to really take business risk, but there is a need to change the capitalist model, to stand out from the corporate veil. Profitable growth is key; you cannot save your way to glory. For me, the greatest risk is personal risk.'

Ronan Dunne, CEO, O2 Telefonica UK

6. Build the team around you

'Personality' was an attribute that fewer than half of the respondents said was important for a CEO. This is perhaps not surprising as successful company leaders are just as likely to be highly extrovert, like Sir Richard Branson, as introverts like Sir Terry Leahy. However, there was unanimity across the entrepreneur leaders and the CEOs running corporations that building the team around them was a key skill.

'Create something that everyone who works around you can be really proud of ... Surround yourself with great people. Build capability.'

Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO, Virgin Money

'The building of great talent is the way to future-proof the business. I was taught for a long time how to be the leader of Kimberly-Clark, and I am only the eighth CEO in its history. We believe great leaders inspire others to dream, learn, do and become more.'

Thomas Falk, chairman and CEO, Kimberly-Clark

'You have to put together a team of people that allow you to be both internally focused on continuous improvement and operational grip, but also have others that are more externally focused, looking for trends, discontinuities in the market, competitive threats and fundamental changes in regulation.'

Gavin Patterson, CEO, BT Retail (right)

'The only essential skill of any entrepreneur is to know who has fire in their belly and who hasn't; (who has) a shared goal to build businesses.'

Julian Metcalfe, founder, Pret A Manger and Itsu

7. Listen with humility and act with courage

'Business acumen' did not rate highly as a key attribute, but CEOs clearly need to be shrewd about what information and advice they heed and act on. They need to listen carefully and think clearly.

'Data is important, but insight is critical. I'm always wary not to overload the organisation with the former at the risk of drowning the latter.'

Jill McDonald, CEO & president, Northern Europe Division, McDonald's

'Great business leaders need the ability to listen and really hear the feedback from customers, colleagues and their stakeholders - and then, of course, you need courage and clarity of thinking to do something about what you have heard.'

Dido Harding, CEO, TalkTalk

'Help me learn, quick, cheap, dirty ... What I want to do is a risk-assessment over a longer-term time frame, but I rarely have time to do this.'

Ian Filby, CEO, DFS

8. Earn your reward through building trust

In a time where policy-makers, financial and retail institutions and brands have all been exposed, CEOs operate in a transparent world; building a sense of trust, and credibility is, therefore, key. A willingness to communicate openly is a step in this direction.

'Trust is what binds us together - with our customers, colleagues and communities. It is only by showing the courage to lean into the truth that we can create enduring trust.'

Benny Higgins, CEO, Tesco Bank

Executive pay continues to grab the headlines, knocking consumer trust. If CEOs can win the trust of their colleagues and customers, they can be highly rewarded with no complaints from stakeholders, the media or, ultimately, customers. While investigating the issue of pay was not a specific aim of the research, several CEOs did comment off the record.

'The whole CEO pay-rise thing is so ridiculous. What's going to get the country out of this? It's going to be the businesses. Do you want the best people running the businesses? I think you probably do. It's a sideshow that is spectacularly unhelpful, so I think governments should be looking for examples of good business and shouting (about them), as well as ensuring bad business isn't rewarded.'

'70% of my pay is variable. When shareholders do well, I do well; they don't, I don't. I don't think we're hugely well-paid: the job is in danger at times. You do these jobs and as soon as you fail you're kicked out. It becomes more like sports stars who can (play) only for a short period.'

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