Man looking towards mountain top

How today's biggest names in business made it to the top of their professions

If you've ever wondered what makes the most successful managers so special, then help is at hand. E&T reads a new book on the ups and downs of life at the top of the corporate ladder.

You're determined to make it as CEO. You've modelled and managed your career step by step to be an effective leader, delegator, negotiator, risk taker and business builder. You've got the necessary 'get up and go' and you're ready to seize the next great opportunity. You're ready for the final hurdle.

But do you really have any idea what's involved running a major company? Did Tony Hayward have a full grasp of the awesome challenges ahead when he was hoisted into the top job at BP? How could the chairman, a former CEO of a global company and only appointed in January, have any idea? How did more than 200 of the world's top bosses interviewed by the authors make it as corporate leaders?

'The New Secrets of CEOs' is actually a very good book, based on thoroughgoing interviews with the 200-plus to have scaled the dizzy heights of the corporate mountain. This update of a book first published two years ago now includes many new corporate stars: British, American, Russian, Chinese and Asian.

Surprise, surprise. According to the authors, 'most CEOs confess to not having a strong handle on the latest developments in technology - a major concern given that the Web and related technologies will be the pre-eminent platform for connecting the world in the next decade'.

Winning customers is obviously the Key to Survival, CEOs say, but the next most important battleground for competing global companies is that for talent. Many chief executives claim to make recruiting and promoting exceptional talent a top priority, but give it insufficient focus or time.

Life at the top isn't all it's made out to be. CEOs like the former head of Lehman Brothers and Sir Fred Goodwin, of the Royal Bank of Scotland, discovered blows to their reputation were such that it will be difficult to recover. But is being a CEO really as daunting as this?

Half of the CEOs profiled say they find the job intensely lonely and don't know who to turn to for advice and find it difficult to have time for a fulfilling personal life. They spend years getting to the top before they are either ousted with a payoff or retire on a generous pension.

Another real concern is who matters most, shareholders, employees or customers? The popular view is 'if you are not focused on your customer, nothing works. If you are not focused on your people it becomes very tough, and if you don't look after your shareholders that's very tough as well. You have to strike a balance'.

Should being a CEO come with a strong health warning? It's a gruelling job and most chief executives don't have much of a personal life. Too few seem to really enjoy the job.

Tackling new overseas markets is another of today's top challenges for most CEOs. Tesco became Britain's biggest retailer, then moved its operating model to Asia, Eastern Europe and the US. When UK growth in out-of-town superstores slowed, Tesco's bought chains of high street convenience stores, then a majority stake in Dobbies Garden Centres, a new area of business for Tesco, at the same time expanded Tesco's retail operations in some ten countries in Eastern Europe and the Far East before the tougher push in the US. Tesco already has plans to generate an additional £1bn profit from new initiatives ranging from mobile phones to a new banking venture.

CEO Terry Leahy's mantra is simple and direct. In business, he says, the important thing is the relationship between the firm and its customers. The radar comes from working with customers. What do they need in their lives?

Some drive to become a national and international manager. Some want to be global business leaders or, like Phil Cox, CEO of International Power and Steve Holliday of National Grid, want to raise production and eliminate waste, and some, like Martin Sorrell, are driven by the challenge of building a great business.

Building your own business from a small start into a giant global group through completing 35 acquisitions in the year 2000 alone takes rare courage. Sorrell built one of the world's largest advertising and marketing groups in this way.

He gained huge experience expanding the Saatchi brothers advertising group, but started by buying a small shopping trolley manufacturer called Wire Plastic Products (WPP), appointed himself chief executive and 'began to use it as a vehicle to acquire advertising-related companies'.

Having started the business in a room with two people he stunned the advertising world first in 1987 with a $566m hostile take over of J Walter Thompson, followed by a $864m bid for Ogilvy and Mather. Today, WPP has amassed one of the largest media buying groups in the world and is one of four major players in the global advertising and marketing arena, employing more than 100,000 people worldwide and valued on the London Stock Exchange at over £37.5bn. Of course, there have been difficult times, like in 1989 and 1990, 'when WPP was on the verge of collapse after having over leveraged it'.

Taking it to heart

What does it take to be an unstoppable business builder? Sorrell's is a 'restless, hands-on management style'. He is personally involved with the first three or four layers of management, taking part in recruitment and wanting to know details of what's going on in all the business. 'WPP's model placed a premium on his personal expertise, market knowledge, deal-making brilliance, and importance of his physical presence at big pitches to clients. Sir Martin is the critical source of energy in the business.'

'When we win business,' he says, 'I'm delighted; when we lose I'm physically and mentally upset. That's the founder's difficulty. We started 25 years ago and built it brick by brick.'

The young Sorrell owes a lot to his start. An encouraging father, an economics degree at Cambridge, followed by Harvard Business School, then working for the US consultancy Glendinning and James Gulliver Association in London, before becoming the first finance director of Saatchi & Saatchi, which was two years old when he joined.

'In all these jobs,' he explains 'I profited from the focus, intensity and determination that I'd gained at Harvard. Harvard's hothouse atmosphere stayed with me. Fear of failure drove me. The trouble was that we were made to feel that we could run the world.'

Not surprisingly, two of the best tips come from Richard Branson. First, 'your people,' he says, 'are everything. Without them you don't have a business. I am only one of many entrepreneurs at Virgin. We employ like-minded people who love to innovate and challenge the norm'. Second, 'at Virgin we not only know how to work hard. We know how to party hard. It was great to see that many of the other CEOs interviewed for this book remind us that working is meant to be fun! Had a bad day or week? Take the team out and have some fun. It's amazing how a little down time gives you a new perspective on what you thought was an insurmountable problem'.

Human capital and talent look like the key issues in the next decade. Sir Bill Castell, chairman of the Wellcome Trust makes the point that human capital is more important than financial capital. Or as BT's chairman Sir Mike Rake puts it, 'the biggest challenge for global companies is to unleash the power of our people'.

Steve Tappin and Andrew Cave, authors of 'The New Secrets of CEOs' have done a tremendous job rounding up over 200 CEOs running organisations all over the world at just about the most difficult times of their lives. They've produced an incomparable primer for anyone with ambitions to lead or build a business. This is better informed and more instructive than many business books and quite a few business schools too.

The careers and management styles of a few of the CEOs profiled are known. Yet an insight into how they hoisted themselves and continue to build their businesses in hard times is often revealing.

Will major businesses of today and tomorrow have to be organised differently, more organically, as the authors' research found, replacing command and control with more fluid and fast-moving cell-like organisations, with greater freedom to act in a much more decentralised operation, while still policing performance?

The central problem with command and control, as the authors found, is its failure to engage people by offering them meaningful work and freedom to innovate. They quote John Weston, former CEO of BAE Systems, explaining 'throwing tablets of stone from the top just does not work. But getting people fired up about what they can achieve and giving them the freedom to be masters of their own destiny is a better way and they appreciate it'.

Another timely finding - that most tangible and intangible assets will increasingly be shared through partnerships, joint ventures and further fragmentation of the supply chain. To keep up with the fast changing environment, businesses will need new rules of engagement, allowing quicker, more flexible and deeper collaboration with external parties.

What qualities are vital for tomorrow's CEO? For Sir John Parker 'consistency is key to integrity, which for me is the most important value for a CEO'. John Connelly, global MD of accountants Deloitte, says 'whatever the circumstances, optimism, giving people a degree of confidence, is the spine of leadership'.

'The New Secrets of CEOs - 200 Global Chief Executives on Leading- by Steve Tappin and Andrew Cave is published by Nicholas Brealey, £12.99

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles