Gill South: How do you grab that plum CEO role?

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Rob Fyfe has resigned as CEO of Air New Zealand.  Photo / NZPA
Rob Fyfe has resigned as CEO of Air New Zealand. Photo / NZPA

The New Year has arrived with some high-profile resignations, with the likes of Air New Zealand's CEO Rob Fyfe and Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard. Paul Reynolds, meanwhile, is expected to resign as head of Telecom's retail business by June.

A replacement has been found for NZX CEO Mark Weldon, a New Zealander based overseas for much of his career.

While Fyfe has made it clear that there was plenty of talent within Air New Zealand to replace him, his chairman, John Palmer, has confirmed there will be an international search.

It can be daunting coming in after someone who is so strongly associated with the business's brand as Fyfe is. At this level, people don't so much apply for jobs as express an interest, says former CEO Theresa Gattung.

"Nobody is irreplaceable. If he or she is, they have fallen short on an important measure, to groom one or more successors," says Frank Olsson, a member of the advisory committee of the AUT business school.

Olsson, who was GM Corporate at BNZ in 1990, a time when the executive committee included Teresa Gattung, Rob Fyfe, Sam Knowles and Peter Thodey, among others, points out that stars on Wall St often don't work out when moved to a new company - and the reason is that so much of their success was based on the environment and the right support.

"And someone who comes new to a highly paid high-profile role may not find that kind of support at the new place - where many will be envious that this outsider has come in ahead of all the existing leadership and management," he adds.

So how do you position yourself for one of these plum CEO roles?

"When these jobs come up, you really need to be prepared," says Lester Levy, the chief executive of the NZ Leadership Institute at the University of Auckland Business School.

Levy, a friend of Fyfe's, says one of the reasons Fyfe has done well was he was very engaged not just in his job, but with Air New Zealand and his industry sector.

Fyfe has "truckloads of intrinsic motivation", in other words, motivation that comes from inside rather than from any external or outside rewards, says Levy. He also has excellent implementational capacity.

But he hasn't done it alone. "With an iconic CEO, there is no way they do it by themselves. In the end, iconic people get results by engaging, creating momentum, being the source of inspiration," says Levy.

Top executives currently looking at going for his job might think it will be hard to fill this person's shoes but Levy's advice is you don't want to compare yourself to your predecessor to perform in the job.

"It's more about what the job is going to be, what is demanded of you, for the interview panel to see that you have got the capacity to do what the job demands in the future." The job as it was with this outgoing person is history, says Levy.

Even Steve Jobs would have been unable to keep doing what Steve Jobs did, he says. "We all do run out of steam."

Levy finds it ironic that internal people can feel disadvantaged in the interview process. In fact, an internal candidate will be one-third better at the job because they know the company culture, he says.

If a board has really done their research, they will have one internal and one external candidate in the final mix, he adds.

To the internal candidate, he says, don't start readying yourself when the announcement comes that the CEO is leaving. "You need to have a pattern of trust, and performance."

If you have ambitions for the top job, it's about how you convince others you can create your own brand of leadership, not about trying to emulate others.

"Don't try and be Rob Fyfe, be your own person - the key word for the future is be authentic," says Chris Johnson, Kerridge & Partners' head of coaching and leadership development. If you are an internal candidate, you need to understand where the gaps are in your portfolio, says Johnson, partner at the advisory firm in executive search, executive coaching and board dynamics.

These gaps will often be things like exposure to the board, investor relations experience, and having experience in very good strategic thinking and execution.

Excellent internal candidates should be aware that they are being looked at by the board perhaps sooner than they think, says Johnson.

If you think going through interview process, you're fooling yourself - it's an ongoing process.

From the moment the incumbent resigns, you are in the spotlight, he says.

The good news is that around 60 to 70 per cent of top US and UK CEOs come through the internal route, while approximately 40 per cent of external hires fail to meet expectations within two years.

One of our biggest problems in New Zealand is that successful CEO candidates have usually run a major division in the lead-up to the big job and these positions cannot always be found here. "They've been a mini CEO and have run a big operating chunk of business," says Johnson.

Up-and-coming New Zealand managers have to make sure they put themselves in the way of opportunity, says Johnson. He advises senior talent to take on external board directorships to give themselves some experience in this area.

"In New Zealand, there should be an opportunity for that - there's no substitute for board experience.

"You have to have a track record, the feedback on you has got to be positive, you've got to be in front of the board, volunteering for change projects or high-profile acquisitions."

People have to have been able to see that not only are you strategic, but you've got the personality recognised at leadership level.

Ideally, top talent will be mentored by the CEO as well, says Johnson. And they have got to have buy-in from board members.

"Really good CEOs will work on their successor within a few years of them joining," he says. And potential CEOs should be able to prove that they can manage key stakeholder relationships.

Johnson's final piece of advice to internal candidates: "How do you know that the organisation's video perception of you is up to date - do they know what you bring today? It's about taking this opportunity to get exposure."

- NZ Herald

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