The last few years have wrought major changes in the nature of business and are redefining the criteria for successful business leadership. Leaders are not only more visible, but their perceived value has escalated dramatically. Once faceless bureaucrats, chief executive officers (CEOs) are now media personalities. No longer are CEOs' comments restricted to a select few; today, CNBC, CNN and a multitude of Web sites carry their comments live and provide instant analysis. This can be a double-edged sword as George Shaheen (late of Webvan) and Alex Mandl (late of Teligent) can surely testify. Along with the heightened profile comes a series of management challenges that redefine the role of the CEO in the wired economy. A brief review of industrial history helps to put the role of the CEO into context.

Much of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century were characterized by the transformation from a largely rural, agrarian economy and business model to an urban, factory-based model from which was born the discipline of management and ultimately the role of CEO. The separation of the ownership and management roles within the organization heralded a new era.

The second half of the 20th century saw the manufacturing base supplanted by a thriving service sector largely fueled by technology and communications advances. Leaders who understood the opportunities provided by these changes and aggressively took advantage of them are now recounted in business history textbooks. The relatively new executive role of chief information officer (CIO) is a direct result of this evolution. Similarly, the increasing need for business leaders to understand the role of information technology as opposed to mechanical technology in business gained more importance.

In these early years of the 21st century, another dominant change is taking hold. The increasingly ubiquitous nature of low cost, reliable computing and communications technologies is revolutionizing the world much like the adoption of mass production in the 20th century. The latest iteration is the product of innovative and visionary leaders whose names are now synonymous with the companies they created, grew or transformed.

Business in the last 100 years has been defined by its leaders: John Rockefeller of Standard Oil, Andrew Carnegie of U.S. Steel, Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors, Henry Ford of his namesake company and more recent luminaries such as General Electric's Jack Welch, Chrysler's Lee Iococca, Microsoft's Bill Gates, IBM's Lou Gerstner and Intel's Andy Grove. All of them are worthy of placement on a list of the 20th century's "All-Star Management Team" because their innovative management practices became commonplace at most companies. Few professionals in 1900 could have predicted how dramatically these leaders would influence changes in business. This prompts the question: What if, at the start of the last century, corporate boards had even a remote knowledge of what any of these leaders were to later introduce and achieve?

If they had, they would have been clawing over each other for the opportunity to hire any one of these mavericks as early as possible. However, if these same leaders were on the market today, corporate boards would be understandably hesitant to invest in leaders with skills and characteristics possessed by last century's "All-Star Management Team." The advent of many technologies, most notably the Internet, has irrevocably altered the demands that will be placed on tomorrow's CEOs.

For CEOs, the changes being wrought by technological advances are at least equal in magnitude to the transformations of earlier eras. One only needs to look at some recent challenges to conventional rules:

  • Shareholder value is not necessarily tied directly to the effective management of assets recorded on the balance sheet. Increasingly, value is recognized through less tangible measures such as brand, intellectual capital, human capital and customer loyalty.
  • Barriers to market entry are no longer defined in terms of physical constraints such as location and capacity.
  • Employees no longer define a good job as one with a high degree of security and steady annual pay increases, but as one with constant challenge and reward in the form of experience gained.
  • Technology and its successful leverage are now fundamental to nearly every company and at the heart of much of the innovation occurring today.

What insights can we glean about the skills required for a successful CEO of the future? Will technical literacy translate into business leadership? After all, it does for the richest man on the planet.
Longstanding attributes such as business savvy, financial acumen, a nose for talent and strong communication and organizational skills will remain in every CEO's toolkit. However, nontraditional skills and characteristics are rising in importance. None of these attributes is new; yet evidence of their importance in identifying the new generation of corporate leaders is present in nearly every recruiter's position description for CEOs. In my next column, we will review some of the skills needed to be an effective CEO in today's economy.

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