Is rotating roles the future of the c-suite?

How do you create a company that’s fit for the challenges of the post-digital world, where humans and machines need to work together, powered by new, often unpredictable technologies? How do you lead a workforce that is increasingly self-determining and mobile, to ensure everyone has the right skills set and is pulling in the same direction?

Businesses that are future capable continually evolve their purpose and their business models, adapting to take advantage of new opportunities, unusual partnerships and disruptive tech. Set against a backdrop of AI enabled workplaces, cyber security threats, increasingly empowered consumers and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, this means members of the c-suite are under pressure as never before.

As the pace of change accelerates, the complexities of steering a profitable and purposeful course for a company, often exceed the scope of individual leaders. That’s why businesses with shared or rotating leadership models are likely to be better positioned to thrive in this increasingly disrupted environment.

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Huawei, a company with revenues of US$92.5 billion, has been rotating the role of its CEO every six months since 2012. More boldy, online retailer, Zappos, is experimenting with building a “Holacracy,” a flat, manager-free operating structure designed to empower its staff.

So, what are the business advantages of abandoning hierarchical structures in favour of shared or rotating leadership models?

1. Mitigating the risks of founder culture

Whether it’s Tesla’s Elon Musk, Steve Jobs at Apple or, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, when it comes to big global brands, there is something iconic about having a CEO who also founded the company. But what happens if your brand’s biggest asset risks becoming a liability? Newsweek summed up the downsides of founder centred businesses by describing how, at Facebook a culture of loyalty has overtaken a culture of responsibility.

At Uber, co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick – whose personality helped shape the company’s “fail fast and break things” culture – was forced to step down following a shareholder revolt. Meanwhile, Martin Sorrell’s abrupt departure from WPP prompted observers to question whether the £15 billion business could survive without him. Two months on, news stories about the reasons for his departure continue to impact the brand.

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Adopting a shared leadership model allows a business to hedge its bets and spread the focus across a group of people instead of just one dominant figurehead. And, if the CEO suddenly quits – whatever the reason – there will always be someone available to plug the gap who has hands-on experience of leading the business.

2. Boosting energy levels to avoid stagnation

In our hyperconnected, always-on society, the demands of everyday life can be exhausting, and the strain on members of the c-suite – like the CEO and CTO – can be intense.

Rotating the CEO role offers a healthier, more sustainable approach to leadership which keeps energies high and helps to avoid CEO burnout, a factor in 8% of all start-up failures, according to Fortune magazine.

In politics, regular cabinet reshuffles are part and parcel of how a democracy works. Yes, these are often about political expediency and moving out underperforming ministers. But reshuffles are also about introducing a fresh perspective on key issues and providing departments with new energy levels and momentum. It is surprising that more businesses don’t adopt a similarly agile approach when it comes to shaking up their senior teams. Regularly rotating senior leadership means people are challenged to step out of their comfort zone, learn new skills sets and stay fresh.

3. Accelerating career progression

One of the most significant downsides to companies with fixed, hierarchical models is the fact that career advancement for employees can be slow. Companies often lose their brightest and most talented employees simply because they get frustrated at the lack of progress in their careers. In a recent Gallup survey, career advancement came top of the reasons people gave for leaving their jobs with 32% of people saying they would quit their company for promotional opportunities elsewhere.

This is a massive problem especially for companies in the tech sector where a shortage of people with the right skills means competition for the best hires is fierce. A report by UKTN found that the talent shortage was the number one challenge facing UK digital tech businesses.

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Rotating CEOs can help address this problem especially if it creates openings that feed across throughout the organisation, offering opportunities for promotion and bringing a sense of momentum and progress for the whole team.

Companies that demonstrate they are open to rotating or shared leadership, send a message to the rest of the organisation that senior management is willing to work differently, try new things, and continually adapt to the market. This in turn creates a culture among the wider team of being open to experiment. By contrast, when the same person is in charge for years and years, there is a risk that a culture of innovation can atrophy.

The dangers for companies of falling behind and being disrupted out of the market are much greater than many businesses realise. There is a growing case for new approach to leadership that mirrors the constantly shifting business landscape if business and tech leaders want to secure a successful and profitable future, especially one where people feel happy and fulfilled, can build their own opportunities and be nurtured in that ambition.


Sourced by Teemu Moisala, CEO at Futurice

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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