What does a CEO look like?

I had lunch with a friend the other day, and he was questioning why there were so few young leaders in top positions – he was tired of seeing mostly 50+ men in executive positions. He wanted more young people. I guess he was saying that because he is relatively young himself. I on the other hand, am questioning the fact that there are, still, so few women in top leadership positions. Is it because we are used to a certain stereotype? Is it because we are lacking role models, or is it because we are just following the same old pattern, not even thinking about how it could be different? Maybe we are so used to looking to what it used to be in the past, that we are not even considering a different path for the future.

Gro Harlem Brundtland was elected as the first female prime minister in Norway in 1981. She was one of the first female prime ministers in the world, and although the Norwegian people were proud to have elected a competent candidate for the job, they were still skeptical. People were interviewed on the street, and many did not really believe that a woman could do this job. As a man so eloquently put it; men have much better experience being prime minister, because this job has always been done by a man. . . So then – if everybody is always looking to the past, how can we break this pattern, and set a new future?

Somebody has to be the first – someone has to be the change, no matter what it is. If not, we will always be looking to, and repeating the patterns of the past.

Fear of the future and new thinking has always been a challenge for most people. We prefer to stay safe in our comfort zone, as change is something that our brains instinctively do not like. This is why it is so hard for people to change a pattern like smoking or dieting, (these are not small things for most people, these are big) – we have a hard time breaking the old routine.

Back to leadership: to change the way we look at top executive positions, we have to be open to looking to the future. We can no longer ask ourselves how these roles have traditionally been filled, but instead, how can they be in the future; what skills do we need, what experience do we need and what personality traits do we need?

I believe companies, searching for an executive, are not getting the right help at most executive search organizations either. A friend of mine told me that their company was looking for a CEO in their company and had been very specific with the search agency about what they were looking for; they wanted somebody younger than forty and preferably a woman. The agency came back with a list of 21 men, all over 55. When asked why, they simply replied; this list of people were the only ones in the market that were qualified enough for the job. No women or young people “out there” could do the job. This shows that even companies that are paid to find qualified executives have a limited view, and network, of candidates outside the traditional box. Are we really still at a point where we think about leaders as men? If we continue having the same type of leaders, how are companies going to make a difference in this changing world, and be able to stand out? How are we going to break the norms if we only follow the same old stereotypes?

To break the cycle, we need more visible role models; we need to not look to the past, but to the future. If your dream is to become a CEO, don’t let the stereo type guide you, or scare you off – think about being the one that breaks the cycle and sets a new standard. Be the role model yourself, and you might inspire a new generation of leaders.

Be yourself, and be what you believe in. Be the future.

3 thoughts on “What does a CEO look like?

  1. Dear Anne,

    Congratulations to your new position at Fotoware! I love to read about about innovation, leaving old paths, pattern and manners.
    This brings the world forward, makes us move. And in the end, this mental attidude could provide us generally with new, better solutions, also in the DAM world. Please move on.
    But, on the other hand, there is no guarantee for improvement by innovation. “Innovation” in one field could damage something somewhere else.
    E.g. could forced marketing and a stringent corporate structure (less flexibility) lead to a decreasing customer satisfaction.
    So I am with you: what we need are new types of leaders, breaking the cycle and beeing inspired not to trap into classical gaps seen often in growing companies.
    Kind regards and the best to you and all Fotoware people,


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