Eight Leadership Styles and CEO Selection

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Bonnie W. Gwin

Few issues invite more spirited discussion than the question of leadership style. Case in point: a roundtable discussion our firm hosted last month at the 2015 Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C., where a distinguished panel examined the behavioral patterns that individuals draw on when serving in leadership positions. Leadership style, the panelists agreed, is one of the most important keys for unlocking the full potential of the organization.

For directors, assessing leadership style is critical in discharging their most important responsibility: choosing a CEO. Although, as our panelists pointed out, the most effective leaders learn to flex

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Anne Lim O’Brien

their style according to the situation, most nevertheless have a go-to style that dominates, especially when they face new challenges. Understanding and identifying the dominant styles of CEO candidates, rigorously and systematically, should be a part of every board’s succession process, enabling the selection of a chief executive whose leadership style is best suited to the organization’s business situation, strategy, and culture.

Pilot: strategic, visionary, embraces complexity. Pilots relish challenges and thrive in situations requiring visionary leadership. But they can sometimes leave little opportunity for others to lead, and charge ahead without learning from the past or thinking through the future.

Collaborator: empathetic, talent spotter, coaching-oriented.Collaborators take a team-first approach, share credit, and attract talent. But their focus on others may come at the expense of strategic vision and clear direction-setting, and they can have trouble holding others accountable.

Provider: action-oriented, loyal to colleagues, eager to provide for others. Providers are driven by two different, yet equally strong forces—the desire to lead from the front and to take care of those around them. Their teams may experience them as deeply caring and thoughtful, but also as confident in their own ideas to the exclusion of all others.

Harmonizer: reliable, quality-driven, execution-focused, inspires loyalty. Harmonizers prefer environments where everyone is using the same playbook to ensure reliable, efficient execution, and they are adept at finding the right people to make that happen. But while they are consistent and supportive, they may be cautious when it comes to large-scale, transformational change or significant shifts in the way business is conducted.

Forecaster: learning-oriented, deeply knowledgeable, visionary. Forecasters relish the chance to continually gather data, expand their knowledge base, enhance their subject-matter expertise, and generate new insights about the future. However, they tend to rely on the strength of their ideas to carry the day, shortchanging the importance of influencing skills.

Producer: task-focused, results-oriented, linear thinker, loyal to tradition. Producers value results, consistency, efficiency, and proven approaches. But their emphasis on reliable execution can get in the way of incorporating new perspectives, appearing rigid rather realistic.

Composer: independent, creative, decisive, self-reliant. Composers are often gifted problem solvers, with an instinct for innovation and trust in their ideas. But because they are most comfortable when operating independently they may find collaboration and relying on colleagues difficult.

Energizer: charismatic, inspiring, connects emotionally, provides meaning. Energizes combine a magnetic personality with an ability to create a strategic vision, build enthusiasm in others, and inspire strong performance. Nonetheless, their determination may at times blur into relentlessness that is perceive as dismissive of those who don’t think as they do.

These brief sketches only begin to suggest the richness that emerged from our research. A far more detailed analysis of each style—its particular power, its potential blind spots, and the work environments in which it may thrive or struggle—can be found in our recent Harvard Business Review article. There you will find not only a useful guide to the leadership styles of potential CEOs but also an opportunity to identify your own style, a thorough understanding of which can bring even greater depth to the succession decision.

Bonnie W. Gwin is vice chair and managing partner of Heidrick & Struggle’s board practice in North America. Anne Lim O’Brien is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ New York office and a member of the global Consumer Markets and CEO & Board of Directors practices.

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