The New Ruthless

How Today's CEOs Make it Happen

Few CEOs today would admit to being “ruthless,” let alone brag about it. But plenty of chief executives at major companies big and small are still operating like the old-school, holding power close, and playing to a tight group of constituents.

The classically “ruthless” leader is a take-no-prisoner competitor, a damn-the-torpedoes deal-maker, a scorched-earth cost-cutter, a crony capitalist, maybe even a push-the-ethical-envelope negotiator. With all that power in his hands, he leads from the top by saying “Get it done.”

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If this sounds like you, stop now. When success requires innovation, speed, collaboration, flexibility and a business culture that motivates everyone, the old command and control approach to getting things done doesn’t work and may even be dangerous. Former Pfizer chief Jeffrey Kindler’s taste for confrontational interrogation—rather than careful listening and constructive dialogue—didn’t help him fill his company’s drug pipeline. Carol Bartz’s bluster and proclamations couldn’t turn Yahoo around or satisfy investors.

True, no business leader can fail to be tough, or decisive, or gutsy. But those who keep the top jobs and build dynamic, growing companies—Laura Desmond of Starcom/MediaVest, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft—practice a different kind of “ruthless” from those who fall away or watch their careers and companies implode. These new leaders demonstrate passion for transformation, insisting that they and their companies be ruthlessly open to change.

I have become an advocate of the “new ruthless.” Here’s what it looks like:

Ruthless Honesty
Be ruthlessly honest—especially with yourself—and expect your team to do the same. When the world moved more slowly, it wasn’t as costly to waste time dancing around a topic or calling for another round of meetings. Today, you need an uninhibited exchange of ideas to get to the right answers, and candid feedback from all corners to avoid missing a change or making the wrong move. When I hear a leadership team, in private, trash parts of their company’s business strategy or predict disaster for a new initiative, and I don’t see them raise their criticisms with the CEO, I know there is a problem. If you want positive change, you need the unvarnished facts.

Candor doesn’t exclude diplomacy or compassion. But without transparency and open communication, organizations are operating in the dark. Time and energy can be diverted into politicking, and the focus on business slips. A leader who is honest himself, and displays it, also signals that she or he is confident. That’s the right kind of tough in a world overwhelmed with information and choice.

Ruthless Focus
Jack Keenan has tripled revenues and profits in every business he worked for. He tells me his mantra is “ruthless focus.” Keenan is the founder and CEO of Grand Cru Consulting Ltd. in the U.K., former chief of the business now known as Diageo Plc. and former Kraft International chairman and CEO. First, he says, you do the hard strategic work and begin to set priorities. “You ought to be able to say, ‘these four or five things will achieve our aggressive growth strategies. We need to structure the business and align our resources to focus on these’.” While it may sound easy, Keenan’s approach requires difficult decisions, a keen eye on consumer and financial data, and commitment to get the strategies and execution right every time.

Ruthless focus does not mean a narrow focus, Keenan adds. Virtually all companies today need to think global and local simultaneously. As industries and technology strip away the usual boundaries, leaders have to be alert to everything—all the more reason to know where you are going and how to distinguish between a distraction and a crucial new development.

Ruthless Flexibility
Focus and flexibility are two sides of the same valuable coin. Being open to challenges, to what’s new or different, is essential to any company that wants to be competitive, let alone transformative. Consumers and employees, especially the younger generations of both, are used to rapid change and expect to be heard.

Leaders who are truly flexible, and reveal it, are able create a culture in which adaptability and openness are valued. That helps them attract and keep the best talent. They are successful only when they have leaders who think the same way about innovation, collaboration, and all the different forces that affect their business. Businesses that resist change often wait until they’re on the brink to take seriously how much has changed.

Those with long histories are particularly vulnerable—think Kodak— but so are much younger companies, such as BlackBerry maker RIM. Whatever the company’s history and success, ruthless flexibility demands that you not get stuck in your own story. Respect tradition only if it continues to work. “Scale and power do not give you a right to succeed in the future,” says Laura Desmond of StarCom/MediaVest. Becoming a dinosaur can happen overnight. When I see companies falter, it is often because their leaders are locked into a model for success even as it becomes obsolete.

Ruthless about People
The classically ruthless leader has little patience for the softer side of business. The new ruthless leader is an excellent partner and collaborator. He or she insists on having the best people and creating a culture that supports their mission. Finding the right person for every leadership job becomes a priority. These new leaders need to be at every level in every business unit if real growth is to happen.

The challenge to each individual is clear even in businesses and industries where the primary task is to see and anticipate trends. Last October, Advertising Age identified at least eight major CEO changes in the top agency networks within the prior 18 months because of the changing demands of the business. This turnover is especially significant since there are only “about a dozen big media networks in total.” The traditional CEO, once a rainmaker, is being replaced with business and digital strategists who can ride the trends, innovate and grow enduring companies.

And one of the best ways for CEOs to stay ahead is to move outside their usual circles of colleagues and stakeholders. To anticipate and respond to new opportunities and new risks, you need to be involved, informally and in partnerships, with smart people who may have no obvious stake in your business. Many CEOs are taking hands-on personal roles in responding to environmental, policy and social trends. In August, Starbuck’s Schultz, for example, got 140 CEOs to sign a petition threatening to withhold campaign contributions to incumbents until Washington put the people’s interests above politics. Schultz’s focus is creating jobs. He has received a groundswell of public support, is now in conversations with leaders such as Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, and has elevated his role as a business leader.

As CEOs’ roles get more complex, they must share or delegate important or urgent missions. Leaders have to insist on hiring and supporting people who can go beyond the business’ normal field of vision, just as they do, and then create mutual trust and confidence with them. People need to see, hear, feel, and touch the CEO’s commitment to honesty, focus and flexibility, in concrete ways.

Powerful cultures and great results are all about the behavior of leaders. The leaders who succeed today are those who understand the new ruthless.

Roslyn Courtney, president and CEO of LaserBeam Consulting, works globally with top executives who believe that leadership and innovation are the forces that drive success in our rapidly changing environment.

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