A Guide to Reading Your CEO’s Leadership Style
By By Bonnie Gwin, Ryan Pastrovich and Jeff Sanders

Despite strengths and weaknesses, there is no right or wrong.

Directors today must be able to read CEOs as well or better than they read a profit-and-loss sheet. Many of the board’s most critical duties depend on it: CEO succession planning, performance review, compensation, development and selection.

All of these require subtle and nuanced judgments that go beyond the chief executive’s experience, competencies and past performance to the question of leadership style: How exactly does our CEO lead? How well does that style fit the company’s current situation? And what can we as a board do to accentuate the CEO’s strengths and manage the blind spots?

To help answer those questions our firm conducted extensive research involving more than 14,000 senior executives across a wide range of roles and industries around the world. In the course of the research we identified eight statistically distinct leadership styles or “signatures.”

Think about the senior executives on your team and your experience of how they think and behave. You’ll likely be able to intuit a sense of their leadership style from the list below:

•                      Forecaster: Learning-oriented, deeply knowledgeable, visionary, yet cautious in decision-making.

•                      Provider: Action-oriented, confident in their path or methodology, loyal to colleagues, driven to provide for others.

•                      Producer: Task-focused, results-oriented, linear thinker, loyal to tradition.

•                      Collaborator: Empathetic, talent-spotting, coaching-oriented.

•                      Harmonizer: Reliable, quality-driven, execution-focused, creates positive and stable environments, inspires loyalty.

•                      Pilot: Strategic, visionary, adroit at managing complexity, comfortable with ambiguity, open to input, team-oriented.

•                      Energizer: Charismatic, inspiring, connects emotionally, provides meaning.

•                      Composer: Independent, creative, problem-solving, decisive, self-reliant.

Although every style includes strengths and blind spots, it’s important to keep in mind that no particular leadership style is “right” or “wrong” and all styles can be equally effective.

Individuals tend to have some degree of access to all the styles, and self-aware or well-coached executives can learn to flex to additional styles when appropriate. Nonetheless, our experience and research suggest that leaders tend to gravitate to a much smaller set of default styles they find comfortable or familiar—and those styles have significant ramifications for their performance in their roles.

For directors, an understanding of these styles can enrich judgments and discussions about CEO performance, CEO candidates and the kind of leadership needed in specific business situations.

It can also help identify situations and contexts in which possible CEO successors are likely to be most successful and where their leadership skills can be stretched. For non-executive chairs or lead directors who have mentor-like relationships with their CEOs—or wish to form them—it can provide an objective basis for a fruitful discussion of the CEO’s style or styles, helping CEOs to better understand and articulate the focus of their leadership (whether relationships, ideas, problem solving, execution, etc.) and thus better play to their strengths. And CEOs can also be helped to understand the other leadership styles to which they have access, thus potentially broadening the range of situations and environments where they—and thereby the company—might be successful.

To date, more than 1,250 CEOs have participated in this ongoing research. We examined the primary leadership style of each and the degree to which he or she might flex to other leadership patterns. Here is what we found and what it could mean for boards.

On average, CEOs in our research scored highest on Forecaster attributes. In fact, they scored higher on those attributes than all other executives at any level, including the other members of the C-suite. Forecasters exhibit deep subject-matter expertise and they relish the chance to expand that knowledge. They take time to think deeply, gather data and reflect on what they’ve observed before making a decision or proposing a course of action. They are also adept at marshaling their knowledge to generate insights about future trends or occurrences — an invaluable trait in the executive who is ultimately responsible for strategy. If the company you oversee thrives on new ideas or intellectual capital, a Forecaster CEO can be an invaluable asset.

However, if the organization needs a leader who connects on a more emotional level, the board will need to either make sure the Forecaster can flex to a more charismatic style (Energizer, for example) or put in place a “number two” who can provide the requisite inspiration. Such a go-between can be especially helpful when competing courses of action are being considered. That’s because Forecasters often expect to carry the day for their position by sheer force of argument, underestimating the need for influencing skills to win buy-in from others in the C-suite and to inspire action among their people.

Moreover, Forecasters can sometimes be overcautious despite their ability to anticipate the future. In identifying trends, formulating insights about the future, and forecasting their impact on the business, Forecasters may continue to seek out that extra bit information or conduct that extra analysis. Boards should anticipate this tendency in situations, particularly when speed is of the essence for the organization—in getting to market, introducing a new product or seeking first-mover advantage.

CEOs also score high on Provider attributes. Although CEOs scored slightly lower on Provider attributes than on Forecaster attributes, they also scored slightly higher on Provider attributes than did other members of the C-suite. Providers are motivated by two different, yet equally strong forces—the desire to establish “best practice” perspectives or ways of working and to take care of those around them. They tend to be confident about their abilities, deeply loyal and committed to those around them, and they operate with a sense of conviction — all characteristics that can be very appealing to followers. If the company you oversee has a relatively young workforce that would benefit from mentorship or competes in an entrepreneurial environment, the Provider style can be highly effective. 

Providers’ confidence in their own abilities does come with some blind spots the board should be aware of. The Provider’s listening skills have the effect of making others (including directors) feel heard, but Providers can find it difficult to actually alter their own point of view based on input from others. Further, there’s a risk that the Provider’s focus on higher-level strategy and relationship-building could come at the expense of an interest in executional details — which suggests a role for the board in making sure the CEO has processes and support systems that help ensure detailed execution.

In other leadership styles, CEOs scored equally on Producer and Collaborator attributes. Producers value results — the more tangible and immediate the better. With a strong temperament and work ethic, they also value consistency, hard work and paying one’s dues. They appreciate pragmatism, tradition and efficiency. And while they may be skilled at building efficient structures and processes to enable reliable execution, they also have a bias toward proven approaches—they know what works and expect others on their team to “get on with it.” They may struggle in environments where significant change is needed, where subtle influencing skills are needed, or companies with strong cultures of creativity and innovation.

Collaborators are typically perceptive about others’ needs and take a team-first approach to leadership. They focus on supporting and developing colleagues by placing them in positions where they can excel and share credit for team success. As a result, they’re good at attracting talent. They thrive in environments where followers require the leadership of someone with whom they have a relationship. But in situations where bold direction and engaging personal presence are required to influence key stakeholders — for example, when a big shift in strategy must occur swiftly but the requisite changes run against the company’s prevailing mindset — the board may need to push those who score highly on the Collaborator style to adopt a more assertive style.

Since the pioneering organizational psychologist Kurt Lewin identified three basic leadership “climates” (authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire) in the 1930s, organizations of all kinds have become increasingly aware of the different ways in which individuals lead. In nearly 90 years of subsequent research and debate, business people and psychologists have produced many general frameworks to describe different ways to lead. To be really useful to boards and leaders, a leadership framework requires a high degree of specificity.

As savvy boards know, the details matter whether it’s in the case of an individual’s role like CEO; a business imperative such as spurring growth, a culture or change management situation such as a turnaround or merger; or individual skills such as influencing, strategizing or executing. By adopting a more specific, contextual and nuanced view of how leaders lead, corporate directors can help CEOs play to their strengths — and develop new ones. 

Bonnie W. Gwin is is Vice Chairman and Co-managing Partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ CEO & Board Practice. Ryan Pastrovich is Senior Director of Data Science for H Labs, the research arm of Heidrick & Struggles. Jeff Sanders is Vice Chairman and Co-managing Partner of the Global CEO & Board Practice. Elliott Stixrud and Karen West also contributed to this article.

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