A century ago, the CEO was a fearsome whip-cracker. Fifty years ago, he was motivator dangling corporate incentives. And now, according to the 2015 Wolff Olins Leadership Report, the CEO has evolved into something new: The designer-in-chief of corporate culture, a mentoring figurehead who gets into the trenches with his employees and inspires them to create the next great innovation. How? By instilling them with the qualities that designers have: the ability to recognize problems or opportunities, propose fixes, and iterate those fixes until they've found the one right solution.
"I make sure I design the mission for the company," explained Jeremy Doutte, CEO of Nigeria’s top online retailer, Jumia.
Douette is just one of many CEOs saying more or less the same thing. The global brand consultancy Wolff Olins interviewed 43 CEOs from companies like AOL and the agency Huge, and surveyed 10 leadership experts on emerging trends. Wolff Olins published its results for anyone to read, but to sum it up, the firm postulates that the new CEO is almost like some sort of rebel general, inspiring small guerilla-style teams to dream up new products or experiences. They rally the troops rather than outright command them. They empower their employees to think and work like designers, observing problems or scouting trends, and developing coordinating solutions that don't get lost to bureaucracy. In essence, they need to design a culture like Apple's, in which everyone is a designer.
From the report:
Mindset seems to sit at the heart of this new approach. If the company is to be 'uncorporate,' so must its leaders. Lunch is no longer for wimps, but for confident leaders wanting to share a sandwich with colleagues and get to the heart of things. Even at Coca-Cola things are changing: "I’m more eager now to hear from the people who are closest to the action" (Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola). Although unfamiliar territory, some CEOs are finding it empowering.
It’s a mindset Wolff Olins says forces CEOs to think about "inputs over outputs." Outputs are sales figures and other corporate-designed metrics. Inputs are less tangible pieces of corporate culture; things like creating an environment where employees feel both safe and motivated enough to fail when trying something new. And in fact, 86% of CEOs Wolff Olins spoke to were focusing their energy on driving "numerous yet agile small teams," projects that remind us of Adobe’s Kickbox initiative, where employees are given $1,000 and carte blanche to develop and test new products. As Adobe’s Chief Strategist and Vice President of Creativity Mark Randall told us, only one in 1,000 of those projects needs to be a hit for the entire Kickbox project to pay for itself.
Wolff Olins does caution that a CEO who approaches her employees with questions rather than answers is in an inherently precarious position, but the fact of the matter is, this sort of approach may not be optional when it comes to the younger generation of worker entering the market today. Wolff Olins polled 480 twenty-somethings about their work preferences, and almost half said two key things: 1.) they’d rather work for their own company and 2.) the company where they are employed would be better if they were in charge. Is an employee who is so self-assured ever going to respond well to top-down edicts? As Wolff Olins writes in the report, it’s a tricky tightrope to walk: "Leaders, in response, are learning to be less the visionary, less the sage, less the objective-setter, and more the shaper, the connector, the questioner. And yet at times, they also need to intervene, to insist, to control. It’s a fluid role, its shape not yet clear."
An earlier version of this story referred to the Adobe Kickbox project the Red Box project. (The box is red, but the name was wrong!)