Collaborative Leadership & Second Acts in U.S. Business

Talking about management  talent with an executive search pro is a little bit like listening to Joe Torre evaluate the Yankees or Dodgers. You know you can trust the source and you’ll probably learn something new.

My colleague Meg Wildrick and I had that experience yesterday in a chat with Stuart Sadick, a partner in the Boston office of Heidrick & Struggles, one of the premier search firms.  Stuart, like Meg, started his career at McKinsey. We are now all members of a networking group of people who sell services to professional service firms, such as management consultancies, accounting firms and law firms.

Stuart was about to give a speech at the Harvard University Extension School which is celebrating its Centennial. The subject was “Doing Business in the Post-Meltdown Economy” and one of his themes was leadership. Stuart believes that the days of the superstar CEO – think Lee Iacocca – are over. He argues that successful CEOs in these times will adopt more collaborative, lower key approaches. We suggested that the poster child for the failed celebrity CEO was Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard, who was lionized by the media but eventually ousted by her Board due to the company’s poor performance. She has been succeeded by the far less visible Mark Hurd, who seems to do nothing but deliver excellent earnings.

Stuart also questioned whether “second acts” are possible for major corporate CEOs. In other words, can a CEO recover from a failure at one company to successfully run another? He suggested that John Thain might make an interesting case study. Thain was just named CEO of troubled lender CIT, having previously been ousted from a similar position at the Merrill Lynch unit of Bank of America.

Dropping down from the CEO level, Stuart had some cogent advice for all executives looking to improve their prospects: “You need outside awareness, an understanding of external  trends, what they mean to your business and how you can foster innovation in that climate. You need to be able to identify and add value” And, returning to his theme, “your leadership must be collaborative – raising the bar and helping others do the same. This is a time to re-invent yourself. When everyone zigs, you better learn to zag.”

What do you think? Is the age of the collaborative leader upon us? Are there “second acts” in American business? We’d love to hear from you.

To reach John:

Phone:  212.840.0444
LinkedIn:  John Bliss