He wears Ray Ban sunglasses, and low-cut Chuck Taylors. No, not your younger brother – we’re talking about the modern CEO. Nowadays, when an employee has a lunch date with his company’s CEO, it isn’t about sitting nervously across from a grim old man in a pin-striped suit. The working world is approaching a large paradigm shift. New and more flexible working models, and a change in employee values have made this change necessary – especially in the boardroom. Companies are focusing on flat hierarchies, teamwork, and innovative thinking. A modern CEO is needed to lead a team into the complex digital age. What do executives look like today? Which traits do today’s CEOs need? We spoke with the younger generation of CEOs.
How Modern Executives Lead the Way
Today’s modern executive must adapt his leadership style to the various needs of his employees. Already in the last few years, employees have developed stronger professional values – they want more than just recognition for their work, they also want the opportunity to further develop, and learn. A good work-life balance. A working environment where they can feel comfortable “Young employees ask for more than the generation before – they’re looking for reason in their work,” says Julian von Blücher, CEO of Talent Tree, a German-based recruiting firm specializing in finding talent for tech start-ups. “Add to that the individualization allowed by the internet. Through Facebook, for example, the community becomes more transparent, and all kinds of people are brought to the same level. Facebook knows no hierarchy.” When an employee is “friends” with his boss, this can dramatically influence the working relationship.
A modern executive must also adapt his leadership style to technical and social changes. The ideal contemporary boss is respectful towards his team, he is a strong decision maker, and offers his employees a clear structure, while remaining flexible so that every employee feels comfortable sharing their own ideas. It’s quite a balancing act.
Values and Employee Motivation
Today’s employees want to see the meaning behind their work. The executives of today must establish a values-based corporate culture, and work to instill these values in all company activities. There should be no cliche marketing platitudes, but rather guidelines that are followed by every team. “The most important factor for me is that our employees feel comfortable,” explains Dannie Hansen, who’s made his name through pioneering innovative online marketing techniques. The 25-year-old CEO leads three different companies. “For example, I decided not to receive a salary in 2015, so that we could finance our existing investments. I wanted to avoid any limitations on my employees – like reducing my team’s budget, or not paying bonuses.” A good executive must also set a good example, and demonstrate his commitment to corporate values every day. “I love my company, and I give 110% every day,” says Hansen. “How else should I motivate my employees?”
Julian von Blücher also places high value on the development of shared values in a corporation. “The 7 core values that my team and I have developed together serve as our compass. In my opinion, working organizations where values are lived and demonstrated every day are much more effective than companies where services are only performed according to the rules. This means that diverse teams can grow together through shared values.”
A modern executive knows his team. He has a sense for when and if there are problems – whether they’re personal, or from a business perspective. And he handles it in such a way that his team knows they can trust him. “Above all else, in tough situations, trust in one’s supervisor is very important,” says David Baumgartner, founder and CEO of the restaurant chain dean&david, known for its healthy and freshly prepared food. “This calls for an authentic manner and strong social skills. One of the most important experiences that I’ve had in the last 10 years with dean&david is this: the quality of the leadership is a crucial factor in deciding the success of the company.” Dannie Hansen and David Baumgartner both believe in flat hierarchies in their companies. “In Denmark, flat hierarchies are the norm. Besides the royal Danish family, everyone is addressed by their first name – that’s also the case in companies,” explains Hansen. David Baumgartner also became a CEO at age 26, and has always had a very open and uncomplicated relationship with his employees: “We treat each other as equals.”
The relationship between executives and employees is especially tricky. “What’s especially important is open and honest communication. I’m extremely thankful for ideas and strong suggestions from my employees, but I am in charge of the final decision. This role also requires that I act as mediator and sparring partner – both within my team, and also in terms of client and candidate negotiations. I have an open ear for their problems, and any other time, if necessary,” says Julian von Blücher.
Through social and technological changes, today’s job market is growing more and more complex. It’s not so common for executives to operate as a “one-man-show.” The capacity to understand new perspectives, and to be open to other ideas, is an important component of the leadership culture in the digital era. For this reason, today’s modern boss is an advocate for teamwork. He encourages his employees and knows that the best and most creative ideas normally come to life within a team. This means that the modern boss has no problem with brainstorming with his team. And while in the past, bosses typically took on the role of “Captain,” plenty of modern executives function instead as the helmsman, steering the metaphorical ship through rough and stormy waters – but also working directly with the crew. “I would never ask my employees to do something, simply because I didn’t want to do it myself,” says Hansen.
Of course, today’s modern executive must also show his ability to lead. If a CEO also acts as a drinking buddy to watch football with, over time, the employees won’t be able to take his leadership role seriously. “When it comes to making final decisions, I become the ‘boss’ again,” says David Baumgartner of dean&david. “I have the impression that my employees also expect that, regardless of how open it is the rest of the time.”