INTOUCH : The Kiwi CEO paradox

How do you balance the tensions of role in which you are both seen as powerful, visionary and charismatic but in reality are expected to be fairly low key, risk averse and actually don’t have the sort of power people perceive you to wield?
It seems New Zealand CEOs have to find ways of living comfortably in this paradox if they are to be successful.
That’s the finding from research conducted by Victoria University graduate and senior lecturer in management at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, Beverley McNally. She set out to demystify the role of local CEOs by conducting some in-depth interviews.
“Very little work had been done on executive leadership in New Zealand, so I was interested in talking to CEOs about how they perceive their role, taking into account the social, cultural and historical forces seen as unique to this country,” explains McNally.
So, as part of her PhD research, she spoke to 22 CEOs and eight executives in large New Zealand organisations, including board chairs and directors. The data revealed two quite distinctive sets of expectations of the CEO.
“I found that when these two forces collide, it creates set of tensions and paradoxes for the CEO. Here the role of CEO is seen as social institution and the CEO as mediator, mediating between these two conflicting expectations.”
That involves something of mental balancing act.
“For example, [as CEO] I am expected to take long-term focus to ensure organisational sustainability because that’s in my job description but what my reality is, is to ensure profitability in the next year to 18 months. The successful CEO is able to balance those demands – yet at the same time there are implications for boards of directors to ensure those job descriptions are accurate and the expectations between board and CEO are aligned,” says McNally.
She says that while there is perception that CEOs are very powerful, in reality they are constrained from voicing the true opinions because of the social constraints. Examination of leadership roles suggests that being comfortable in ambiguity is part of the package – but it goes beyond that, suggests McNally.
“My study indicates that it is not only about being comfortable with ambiguity – it is the ability to balance the tensions this creates that is important. CEO may recognise the lack of certainty but if they cannot balance the tensions to seek solution then there is problem.”
A sense of self is important.
“Two predominant words here are ‘adult’ – the CEO is an adult in all relationships including honest personal relationships – and ‘balance’. They must have the ability to balance conflicting demands.”
Although there’s no specific recipe for this, awareness is critical, says McNally. She says the findings have implications for leadership training and development – long term.
“There is very short-term focus in New Zealand and reluctance to invest because of adverse scrutiny but it is crucial if this country is to have competent CEOs in the next 15 years.”

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