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The Era of the Faceless CEO

Jack Welch passed away last Sunday, I am reminded of my 20s whenever someone asks me which company or CEO do I admire, GE or Jack Welch usually top the list. Every Saturday morning, I would buy a copy of the US edition of Fortune magazine and devour it with my breakfast at the local coffee shop in Holland Village (Singapore). The US capitalism and business management stories fascinate me, given that I was working at Infosys, which was only a 100+M company then, we were selling mainly to the Corporates (2Bn in Revenues). Looking back now, I realise that the reasons for my answer were because 1) it was what my then boss and mentor would say 2) I was surrounded by men and mostly left-brain thinking of what business should be 3) the media then highly favors American capitalism and supports the cookie-cutter version of what a CEO would sound and look like. 4) I was trying to fit in, impressionable and hungry to learn and there was no other global alternatives/role models publicly.

20+ years later, with more experiences and exposure, white hair (dyed black), observing the current business landscape, more self-aware of cognitive biases in the human condition and therefore more independent thinking, I realise my flawed preference. I also realise the importance of role models to help shape the next generation of leaders and companies, because role models show what is possible, show pathways, show modeled behaviors, but it also perpetuates stereotypes if role models are one dimensional. Please understand that I still respect and think Jack was in his times, a great leader and I love and agree on his "candidness" and brutal honesty in business, but he was an icon for his times and his practices are also for that generation and specifically for America. The world has shifted, expectations from businesses have increased, global trade is allowing any business from any country to dominate its niche, social media and technology have democratise information dissemination.

The face of a celebrated CEO has changed and will change, it is no longer an Anglo-Saxon white middle-aged male. (I sincerely apologise if you are offended or feel discriminated by my statement, I am not saying that there should be less of you, am just asking you to share the spotlight) It is no longer also one type or a role belonging to one kind of race, age, gender or social class or personality type. I will call it the Era of the Faceless CEO. He or she should look like anyone on the street because anyone can be a leader or a CEO or start and build a great company if they are passionate about solving a great problem and serving the niche as long as they are willing to learn and have a growth mindset. So then, why is it so important to highlight this, it is because human beings are social beings, we like and hang with people we can relate and connect with, we are familiar with and have something in common, and as a CEO, you need a supportive pool of all kinds of human beings who are invested in your success and want to support or help in all ways. (advice, connections, introductions, expertise, referrals, therapies :) etc). Therefore, these invisible walls of social barriers, if you don't fit into a typical CEO mold, mean that you actually need to work harder, more effort and time, either to make those connections or strive for opportunities. It is also more a hit and miss because most solutions and advice are cookie-cutter made for the majority (because of economic reasons and law of the majority) and you need the other party to be open and receptive to you without judgment which then goes back to the social familiarity. This of course also applies to any business executives wanting to "climb" the ladder.

We need to show, celebrate and especially highlight the diverse Founders/CEOs with new and different approaches that work for the new world. We actually don't have all the answers as the world is changing at a rapid pace and with new challenges unfolding. It is time to select new Role models with new criteria that shows the diversity with emerging expectations of businesses from society. We need to deliberately show images that rewire the brain and stop cognitive biases so that we don't act on automatic default and to help set our next generations of leaders and CEOs on the right trajectory.

These are the new role models for the next generation of Founders/CEOs in my opinion, and how I wish they were around 20+years ago, to be my role model so that I know there is a more inclusive and alternative way to be. Who do you think should also be on this Hall of Fame?

I might write another article to explain my choices, the criteria are more about how they each have created a "successful" company by following their path despite (if any) more odds against them and created new ways and models to serve their purpose. The key is that leadership is the courage to be true and can see what is possible first and show and lead people out of fear instead of perpetuating fear for either personal or company gains.

All views expressed are my own opinions and since I am also a human being, I am susceptible to the same biases that I try to be aware of every day.



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