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Why it finally may be time to hire a Chief Leadership Officer

This former Apple exec makes the case for a new C-suite post that would prevent toxic workplaces and help employees feel empowered.

Why it finally may be time to hire a Chief Leadership Officer
[Source photo: Yulia Reznikov/Getty Images]
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Today, corporate America faces a leadership crisis. To confront this crisis, the practice of leadership needs to be elevated to a C-suite role: the chief leadership officer. Successful companies must evolve to meet the changing world. Oftentimes, they do so by creating new roles that are opportunistic, address an urgent need, or avert a crisis. The creation of the chief leadership role is such a moment.

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What is the role of the chief leadership officer?

At its core, the mission of the chief leadership officer is to guarantee that a robust leadership culture exists and that the factors contributing to it are consistent and aligned. The CLO works to connect all the dots that determine leadership behavior in a company and to ensure that leaders develop to their fullest potential.

Many companies today fail to define—in clear and simple terms—their overall vision for great leadership. Moreover, they often lack a unified, intentional approach to the many ingredients that create a consistent culture of leadership. Such ingredients include corporate purpose and values strategy, recruiting, performance criteria, reward systems, coaching, training and development, external and internal communications, and equity and inclusion strategy.

Many, though not all, of these often fall under the purview of HR. Regardless of where they land, however, they need to be looked at and executed specifically through a leadership lens. Without that focused approach and a clear separation from the employee population as a whole, their impact on leadership behavior will be diluted.

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The person who holds the CLO position should have a proven track record of successfully leading, and they should serve as a role model of leadership for the company. With this leadership experience in hand, an effective CLO: 

  • Articulates a vision for what successful leadership in the company looks like
  • Becomes an evangelist for that vision and guarantees that both internal and external communications actively and consistently support it
  • Ensures focus and alignment among the many ingredients that contribute to leadership behavior
  • Assesses the company’s success at delivering on its leadership vision on an ongoing basis
  • Reinforces appropriate leadership behavior through programs designed in response to employee feedback and surveys
  • Creates opportunities for non-leader-track high achievers to be rewarded, so that the company doesn’t lose the aptitude and expertise of those employees simply because they lack leadership potential

Personal coaching of current and prospective leaders is a critical function of the office of the CLO. Companies spend billions of dollars on contracting with executive coaches every year with the intention of making better leaders. But many of these external coaches have no actual leadership experience—they may have learned about leadership in an academic classroom but not have been leaders themselves.

Academically trained coaches are not nearly as effective as already-proven leaders. The CLO’s office is staffed with a group of time-tested leaders who act as coaches to help people become great leaders. These coaches might be company veterans or successful former leaders from other companies who undertake a full-time coaching role.

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The CLO’s office works cross-functionally with groups like HR, recruiting, corporate communications, marketing, training, and the C-suite to deliver a disciplined and coherent culture of great leadership. The CLO’s office is accountable for creating a bench of outstanding leaders, improving employee satisfaction, and enhancing leader/employee relations. In short, the CLO’s office fosters a positive work culture.

Why a chief leadership office now?

The idea of the CLO role is not brand-new. Varying interpretations of the role have quietly surfaced before but without gaining much traction. 

But today—given the serious flaws in leadership that have recently emerged—there is an urgency to create the CLO role. Examples of bad leadership continue to occur, despite ongoing media attention and intense scrutiny. Something is not working.

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Problematic leadership issues have arisen across the spectrum, in companies large and small, spanning sectors. Discrimination, sexism, harassment, or generally toxic workplaces pepper the landscape. As a result, there’s an essential need for companies to repair the damage already done, eradicate unacceptable leadership behaviors, and nurture good ones. This transformation won’t be achieved overnight and will require focused attention.

As more heterogeneous employee populations develop, it is mission critical to have a more nuanced approach to leadership. The unique sensitivities of diverse employee populations, by  their nature, require it.

What does research tell us about leadership? 

It is particularly startling to see the enormous effect leadership has on employee satisfaction levels. According to McKinsey, “Relationships with management are the top factor in employees’ [level of] job satisfaction.” A Gallup poll finds that 82% of managers and executives are seen by their direct reports as lacking in leadership qualities and skills. And researcher Robert Hogan reports that 75% of “working adults say the most stressful aspect of their job is their immediate boss.” 

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Some of this is because people are often promoted to leadership positions based on their mastery of a specific function or technical expertise, as opposed to any proven ability or desire to lead. This occurs because many companies make “leadership” the only track for growth or advancement.  

A disconnect also exists between company leaders and their employees when assessing the leadership team’s strengths and weaknesses. In research among 52,000 managers and employees, McKinsey found that, when it comes to their own leadership qualities, they tend to rate themselves significantly higher than their employees do. 

“What to Do When You Have a Bad Boss,” an article in the Harvard Business Review, illustrates many less-than-optimal reasons people stay in jobs despite having bad bosses. These reasons include “the job pays too well to leave,” “there aren’t any jobs that would be better,” “things might get better,” and “I need the salary.” Companies ought to hope and strive for better leadership as the reason employees stay in a job rather than having them find excuses for not leaving despite poor leadership.

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What does the future hold?

The consequences of poor leadership are too great for companies to wait any longer before embracing the chief leadership officer role. As companies set out to prioritize more welcoming and inspiring workplaces, the very qualities of good leadership have never been more scrutinized, reevaluated, or essential. In addition, consumers and customers of all kinds are increasingly putting a premium on the values espoused by companies from whom they buy, including their leadership profile. It’s time for all the factors that can define a company’s leadership to be better articulated and coordinated to achieve one common purpose: a practice of outstanding leadership. 

Creating the role of chief leadership officer will require work, incremental investment in people and dollars, and the potential for some leadership turnover. But these will be far outweighed by what develops: a more robust and happier workplace that improves company performance and builds stronger corporate goodwill. 


Paul Donaher is principal at PJD Consulting, a management consulting agency. Prior, he was a senior managing director at Apple, where he led the company’s in-house global marketing communications group.

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