C-suite looking for team members, not captains of industry

Is the decider-in-chief an industry relic? One CIO headhunter says so. The new C-suite ideal is the collaborative team player.

The conversation with one of my favorite CIO headhunters started out as a discussion about accountability in the C-suite and ended up on Instagram. Specifically, it was about his 12-year-old's use of the social networking service to do his homework. The takeaway: Whether it's because the modern enterprise has become mind-bogglingly complex or because the whole wide world -- ruthlessly competitive corporations included -- is waking up to the value of information-sharing, the model of the top-down executive is giving way to a leadership model based on collaboration, consultation and team play.

The topic of C-suite accountability came up in my phone call last week to Shawn Banerji, managing director at Russell Reynolds Associates in New York. Thirteen years ago, Banerji was telling me, he was recruiting a woman in charge of IT infrastructure at a well-known global management consulting firm based in New York. The woman -- bright, super-competent and well-respected -- was also highly-compensated for her work even by today's compensation standards (a topic for another column). But let's face it, he pitched her, she was never going to be partner there and therefore a perpetual second-class citizen. Wouldn't she find it exciting to run IT at a place where technology was strategic to the business?

"She said something really interesting to me," Banerji recalled. While her place in the corporate pecking order was sometimes hard to reconcile with her personal ambition, there was something to be said for being recognized as a valued, functional specialist, she told him, "versus having to deal with all the politics and accountability of becoming a partner." This, no less, was at a firm located only a block from Grand Central, the terminal she commuted to daily from the Connecticut suburbs after kissing her kids goodbye.

At the turn of the century, way back in 2000, Banerji found the whole episode a bit puzzling. But his views have changed. "I give her huge props for that degree of EQ," he said -- her high emotional quotient.

To be seen as a valued functionary rankled -- still rankles-- many ambitious CIOs, who with their enterprisewide view of the business consider themselves well qualified to contribute on a strategic level. The importance of getting a seat at the table continues to be stock fare at CIO conferences. I heard the same arguments at a recent gathering of chief risk officers. But as the CIO in the anecdote recognized, there's something to be said for the functionary role.

The push is on to assemble 'much more robust teams,' and not just according to the traditional C-suite hierarchies but more along the lines of a 'leadership ecosystem.'

"The blessing in disguise was that -- unless the company came up with a scapegoat strategy, which did happen -- in many cases you were immune to the consequences if things went really awry," Banerji said. With corporate power comes responsibility and accountability. It's a reality that some newly strategic, former functional executives don't always grasp, he's finding. "They want the glamour, they want the payday, they want all these things, yet ultimately they don't want to own the accountability. And if something does go awry, heaven forbid, they're busy figuring out somebody else to blame for it."

Nor do the trends toward cloud computing and outsourcing IT infrastructure in general lessen accountability, and, very possibly, it makes the CIO job more precarious. Back in the functionary days when CIOs owned and managed all of the IT infrastructure, they might have had less presence in the C-suite but arguably more control of their own domains, in Banerji's view. The outsourcing provider that's now a "strategic partner" to IT doesn't absolve the CIO of responsibility for the delivery of IT. "You can't go to the chief marketing officer or your CEO and say, 'Sorry guys, we hired XYZ to run our e-commerce system and it blew up.'

Heroes need not apply: A shift to more 'robust teams'

For CIOs who are up to the responsibility and accountability that comes with corporate decision-making power, there's some good (or at least interesting) news, according to Banerji. "These C-suite jobs are so complex, these decisions have such significant implications, that to expect any one individual to take on the personal accountability to get it right is not reasonable and it's bad business. It puts the business at risk," he said.

He's seeing a push to assemble "much more robust teams," and not just according to the traditional C-suite hierarchies but more along the lines of a "leadership ecosystem." Certainly some people will have greater depth of expertise in particular areas than others, "but it is a far more collaborative approach to conceiving ideas, executing ideas and less of the top-down dictatorial leader. People who have that top-down type of DNA are not moving into these top jobs," he said.

Using social networking tools to facilitate enterprise collaboration is a big topic at SearchCIO. We've followed the story from its days as a practice to ban in the workplace to its use as a marketing vehicle for tracking and engaging customers, to the recent implementations of enterprisewide social networking platforms to facilitate collaboration. We've also recently run advice pieces on teamwork, including the five dysfunctions that will kill a team and the value placed on teamwork by one of the profession's most successful CIOs. To see this trend now take hold of C-suite recruitment confirms our conviction that social networking and collaboration has big implications going forward.

Which brings us at last to Mr. Banerji's 12-year-old who does his homework on Instagram. He's a regular kid who loves sports, says his doting father, and "no more than baseline" in his use of social media. "But when he gets a homework assignment, he doesn't come to us; he texts four kids in his class and says, 'What do we need to do for this?'" said his father. They collaborate on school work, "and they don't care who sees it!" he marveled. Why, even a boy from another school who plays baseball with his son chimed in on one assignment. "He was saying, 'Hey, man, saw you were studying whatever …. Do you know this?'"

This generation lives by a different notion of privacy than we do, and -- maybe more significant -- a different notion of competition, I said to Banerji.

"Yes, so are we headed to Utopia?" the headhunter replied. "Or are we headed to a situation where you have a lot of naïve people who end up as sheep to the wolves among us? It's all evolving very quickly."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Executive Editor.

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