Chief Executive or Chief Emissary?

The problem with change is it happens underneath the surface and out of sight to most of us. We can keep ourselves occupied with “change management” of those things we believe we can influence, but in reality, that is a tiny proportion of the change going on.

When owners run businesses, we know where we are. They make the calls and reap the consequences, good or bad. About thirty years ago, however, as M&A moved mainstream, things became cloudier. Ownership moved steadily from the boardroom to the shareholders, and real power shifted from the boardroom to those who represented shareholders. Today, twenty per cent of the voting power in the companies that make up the FTSE 350 sits with just ten asset management companies, most of whom are hardly familiar names.

On the other side of the power equation, companies are more dependent than ever on highly mobile talent, those with technical and human skills, from design to communication, who can change games and move markets. They are mobile because no one company can harness all their talents, and understandably they move to where the money, or more often the exciting challenge, is (the money is never a problem).

Increasingly, it makes the role of Chief Executive look more like a football manager than a captain of industry. Trying their best to manage the expectations of owners and talent whilst exuding an air of authority and ensuring their contract covers them for an early exit.

The etymology of “Executive” originates in “capable of performance”. It focuses primarily on branches of government, though it does include reference to “stylish, luxurious and costly” concerning its application to business. It is much simpler when it comes to “Emissary” – it is someone “sent out on a mission.” Much simpler and, in most cases more accurate of what is asked of those who run businesses for others.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for any executive who isn’t an owner to stand up and credibly espouse a set of company values or strategy because, as the emissary, they are on a mission, not a cause. 

So, where does that leave the rest of us? When it comes to playing the game, what do we own? Like those football players, it is our unique skills, our networks, and our initiative. Yet, today, no matter what HR says, the majority of us are mercenaries. 

If we understand that and are clear about our unique values and mission, things are fine. We set our own goals, take care of our professional development, develop our network and treat our relationship with an employer as an equal and temporary partnership; we will thrive.

Sometimes, I suspect, the most dangerous conversations we need to have is with ourselves.

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