Why Leadership Is Best Grown Organically
And why transplanted leadership should only be a last resort.
I recently came across the Forbes’ list of America’s Most Innovative Leaders and I noticed a very clear trend.
6 of the top 10 leaders on the list are founders of the companies, including all of the top 5 — Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Elon Musk at Tesla, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Marc Benioff at Salesforce.com, Reed Hastings at Netflix, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin at #10.
Interestingly, the other 4 — Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Shantanu Narayen at Adobe, Tim Cook at Apple, and Arne Sorenson at Marriott International — all have a common characteristic as well. While they aren’t the founders of the companies, each of them spent a significant amount of time building careers at these firms before they were tapped for the top spot.
This is not a mere coincidence, and there are good reasons for industry-leading companies to promote in-grown talent as leaders.
Getting your hands dirty gives you perspective
The biggest responsibility for a CEO is to set a vision for the company and lead its employees towards execution and realizing that vision.
Being a part of a company for a substantial period of time allows perspective from being in hands-on execution positions at various levels.
You are also closer and more empathetic to the real issues faced by the employees of the organization as you’ve been in that seat yourself.
A successful company is formed by keeping its employees at its core, which then results in an environment that takes care of customer-focus as well.
Sundar Pichai spent 11 years at Google before being elevated to the role of CEO. During the period he led the product management and innovation efforts for a suite of Google’s client software products, including Google Chrome and Chrome OS, as well as being largely responsible for Google Drive. In addition, he went on to oversee the development of other applications such as Gmail and Google Maps.
Google’s mission statement is quite simple, yet addresses the core of its values.
“Our mission is to aggregate global data for public use and benefit.”
Pichai’s experience leading arguably some of the most important parts of Google’s product suite clearly aligned him with the vision, and made him the top contender to succeed Larry Page, who was the co-founder of the company.
True culture carrier
“In determining the right people, the good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience.”
— Jim Collins, Business consultant and author of Good to Great
There is no substitute to time when it comes to truly inculcate a firm’s culture into your work ethic. The nuance of how a place works and what are the unwritten rules of conduct can only be learned by being a part of the system for long enough.
Leaders need to lead by example when it comes to representing a firm’s culture. And hence, a transplanted leader, irrespective of the strength of the background cannot bring in this element.
Culture needs to be experienced, it cannot simply be taught.
Good leaders are always accessible
Accessibility and approachability are qualities that are hard to acquire.
The benefit of having a leader who is either the founder of a company, and hence has been around right from the start, or an in-grown leader who has been around long enough to build camaraderie with colleagues and employees cannot be overstated.
One of the key characteristics of most great leaders is that they welcome any and all opinions and feedback, as they understand the true power of diverse thinking. And this can only be achieved via flat hierarchies in organizations, and genuine openness of culture.
Bringing in a CEO or a set of leadership that has no experience working with the current set of employees of a company makes it harder to build this approachability.
“Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation.”
— Doris Kearns Goodwin, American biographer, historian, and political commentator
Organic growth is a source of inspiration
Relatability is one of the major qualities of a good leader.
Seeing someone grow through the ranks and achieve the pinnacle of success in your organization can be immensely inspiring as it sets a possible blueprint for your own growth and development.
It is a clear message to everyone at a firm of being a truly meritocratic place. The simple knowledge of the fact that there is no glass ceiling to your growth acts as an unparalleled source of motivation.
Providing employees with a potential career path right up to the top is also a great retention strategy — quite often people look at switching jobs when they find their growth plateauing. Nothing better for a company’s employee motivation than them being able to see their own CEO as their role model.
There is, however, one major exception
As is true with most things, there is an exception to the rule here. Bringing in external leadership is often okay and even advised when things aren’t going right.
Certain leaders are masters of the turnaround story and possess the unique ability to fix what’s broken. The primary driver for such an approach is the existence of structural issues with the current way a company is run, which probably has a lot to do with existing leadership. Often, the only way or the easiest way to fix this is by bringing in a fresh pair of eyes that can look at things differently, and has experience showcasing exceptional leadership.
Peter Cuneo famously turned around Marvel Entertainment after being appointed as CEO when the company was coming out of bankruptcy protection. When he took the reins of Marvel in 1999, its stock was at 94 cents a share; 10 years later (with Cuneo as vice chairman) the company was sold to Walt Disney for more than $4 billion, or $54 a share.
So while there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, there are enough compelling reasons to try and elevate existing talent before looking for external options.
“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” — Jack Welch