Why This CEO Refers to Himself as the Chief Talent Officer
How do you define a leader? Words and descriptions that come to my mind are vision, inspiring others, transparency, execution. Maybe you think of phrases like sets the tone, pushes for what they believe in, and balances company and employees’ interests.
When asked about leadership, John Ryan, the CEO of the Centre for Creative Leadership, draws on experiences from serving as CEO of 13 organisations as well as his time in the US Navy. Ryan says that the CEO wears two hats: chief executive and chief talent officer (CTO). “It is necessary to have talent that has diversity in thought, experience, and education,” explains Ryan. He believes talent is the base of strategy and culture. Here are three of the responsibilities of the CEO/CTO:
1. Notice potential.
“Regardless of the seniority of the role, there is always room to grow. No one is 100% prepared for their next job. A hiring manager’s role is to see potential and then encourage,” says Ryan. To illustrate this, he shares a story from his time as a pilot in the US Navy. He was 22-years-old and had spent weeks learning how to land a military plane on the USS Lexington, a navy ship stationed near Pensacola, Florida. Given the uncertainty of landing (the pilots often cannot see the landing strip—they only see the wake behind the ship), Ryan and his team were nervous. Luckily they had a coach who encouraged them.
That day, there was a last-minute pilot added to Ryan’s team. He had trained with a different mentor, one who did not coach through encouragement. On that day’s test landing, Ryan and his team mates who were encouraged made the landing. The one pilot who did not pass the test was the last-minute addition.
This experience taught Ryan how important it is for leaders and coaches to be positive. “When you see potential, encourage it,” says Ryan.
2. Prioritise listening.
Before a leader can know if they effectively listen, they need to understand their style. Do this by asking yourself if you listen when someone is talking, or if you are coming up with a response as someone speaks. In Sara Stibitz’s “How to Really Listen To Your Employees” on Harvard Business Review, she writes that not actively listening and ignoring body language can lead to not hearing what is truly going on in the business.
As a young officer, Ryan experienced a leader who actively listened first-hand. One four-star general had the habit of asking junior staff for input on a decision before asking the senior staff to weigh in. While Ryan acknowledged that this encouraged that everyone listen in meetings (and kept everyone on their toes), it also set the tone. “This taught us to share our opinion, sometimes before we thought we were ready,” explains Ryan.
"I talk to people in private, in one-to-ones. I tell them 'we can't be what we want to be without your thoughts.'"
He acknowledges that this would need to be adapted for the Asian context. How does Ryan get people to share openly? “I talk to people in private, in one-to-ones. I tell them ‘We can’t be what we want to be without your thoughts.’”
3. Observe first.
Do people who seem confident from the get-go make you nervous too? You know those people – the ones who take on a new project or adventure, and immediately say, “Don’t worry. I got this.” Ryan says this is the type of person that makes him nervous. “The leader who says, ‘Don’t worry, I got this’ is the one who makes me uncomfortable,” explains Ryan.
Instead of jumping right in, Ryan says that a new leader’s job is to observe first. “This mindset is a humble one. Leaders need curiosity and confidence, but not bravado. The leader that makes me comfortable is the one who can say ‘I don’t know’”.
For example, you may transition to managing a different team. It is an opportunity to ask questions, listen, and gather information on team structure. After observing, you may realise that someone on the team is not in the right role. While you could let them go, there is another option. “I don’t believe in firing, especially when inheriting a team. Rather I find out what they are good at and then find a job that matches.”
A leader’s responsibility is not just to set the strategy, but to observe behaviour, roles, employee engagement, hitting key performance indicators, develop team members, among other things.
Towards the end of our conversation, Ryan quotes thought leader Marshall Goldsmith and references one of his books, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Ryan mentions the cleverness of the book cover, which has a ladder with a few rungs missing in the middle. “Don’t fall into the safety net of complacency,” advises Ryan. It is timeless, but like many pieces of advice, it comes from experience and would benefit us.