Technology and the workforce continue to dominate the minds of senior executives. This is reflected in the research conducted at Criticaleye’s CEO Retreat 2019, in which the top five priorities identified are retaining key talent and developing skills, digital disruption, improved performance management, cost reduction and rebuilding the leadership team.
The responses highlight the intense operational focus of executives as they set about creating organisations that are going to be competitive in the future, while also driving performance in the short term. Kim Horsburgh, Relationship Manager at Criticaleye, says: “The hallmark of a successful executive in the current environment is the ability to keep an open mind by seeking different, often external, perspectives.
“It’s so important because the challenges executives face mostly relate to managing the transition to a new operating model, where the old rules and templates for success no longer apply. It can be difficult for seasoned, senior leaders to accept that they don’t have the answers, but there is an increasing awareness that the cross-pollination of ideas from people in other industries and sectors, can provide those moments of inspiration that show the way forward.”

The research also finds that CEOs identify the key area where they need to improve as looking for inspiration outside of their organisation. It’s something that Joanne Ferris, former Chief People Officer of Babylon Health, thinks is essential for all senior leaders. “The thing you need to focus on as a leader nowadays is to stay connected. Don’t look inside the organisation. Keep an eye on what’s going on in your ecosystem – always,” she comments.
For two years running, the number one priority for CEOs in our research has related to the workforce. There is enormous pressure to map out what types of people are needed as an organisation’s business model transforms. Who do you keep? Who do you bring in? Where should you invest in upskilling and who must leave? These are big, thorny issues that CEOs and senior executives must address with both urgency and no small amount of empathy.
“Developing, promoting and retaining talent to me is a huge challenge,” confirms Sandy Khanna, MD for Group Business Services at BT Group, who adds that the emergence of AI, machine learning and robotics are all going to have a significant impact on the skills required within an organisation.
“Having people who understand and are able to embrace and adopt what this new world means is equally challenging,” adds Sandy.
Peter Lacy, Senior Managing Director at Accenture Strategy, comments that most executives are fully aware of the complexities that confront their organisations in the form of digital technologies and greater scrutiny from stakeholders, such as that around sustainability. “But the real question,” he says, “is how to make that pivot? How [do you] manage moving from your existing businesses to the businesses you know will endure in the future? How do you take people with you? How do you take shareholders with you? How do you take customers with you?”
It’s perhaps why we can expect to see ‘purpose’ creep into that list of top-five priorities in 2020. CEOs realise that, if they are to galvanise different stakeholders so that they back an organisation’s journey of transformation, there needs to be a higher goal. Matthew Lester, Non-executive Director at Barclays and a Board Mentor at Criticaleye, notes the problem of a lack of buy-in to business. “When I started my career, businesses were generally seen as a force for good and part of the fabric of a good, balanced society. I don’t think that is the case now. The first thing we actually have to do is find the right to do business in society,” he says.
Gavin Patterson, former Group CEO of BT, builds on this point: “In great businesses, the purpose and business objectives are absolutely aligned. There isn’t this sort of tension between them. They are ultimately the same thing and people recognise that actually you can make money and do good things for all your stakeholders and that is absolutely a prerequisite of a really great business.”
This article is drawn from two Criticaleye films:
At this year’s CFO Retreat on 14-15 November, business leaders will discuss their top priorities and challenges. To register your interest in attending contact your Relationship Manager or Emma Carroll.