Skip to main content
leadership lab

In leading and managing their organizations in 2014, Canadian chief executive officers appear to be turning to a more hands-on approach and front-line focus, according to a recent Conference Board of Canada study on global CEO challenges and priorities.

With a front-line emphasis on customers, operations and human resources, progressive CEOs of large and complex organizations are starting to embrace a "small business owner" leadership style.

Part of this shift is owing to the limited growth opportunities across Canada. Growth is a function of innovation, productivity improvement, and taking market share from competitors. To this end, progressive CEOs are directing their managers and employees to place an even greater focus on customers and clients. In this digital age, consumers have access to many information sources and choices, and can move quickly toward organizations that are responsive to their needs.

Skilled employees and knowledge workers also have more choices. Progressive boards of directors and executives are paying more attention to the importance of keeping these employees motivated, and are noticing how strengthened employee engagement and performance affects their customer relationships and the company's competitive position.

While CEOs can rely on sophisticated processes and social media to share information instantaneously, many of them are getting back to basics – through face-to-face communications with customers and employees and an emphasis on building relationships.

A challenge for some CEOs is to figure out the most efficient way to tackle this transition. CEOs must ask themselves whether there is real value to investing more time in building relationships with the people who are the heart of a business, and getting to understand their concerns and perspectives. For most, the answer is a resounding yes.

This tells people that the CEO cares enough to take the time to talk and listen, and to learn about what works and what needs to be improved. While finding the time can be difficult, this simple approach makes customers and front-line employees feel special and respected. When customers feel respected, they become more committed to the product or brand. Employees become more committed to the customer and their employer.

So what are the small-business-owner practices that large company CEOs can embrace and put into effect?

For a newly appointed CEO, it is straightforward. The new CEO of Rogers Communications, Guy Laurence, for instance, has been traversing the country to meet the company's employees and customers to get a front-line perspective on the business. Visiting key customers to see and learn about their successes, challenges and priorities conveys sincere commitment and provides real insights into how your business can make a difference to your customer's success.

Other small-business-owner practices include using social media to connect quickly and pointedly with younger generations of employees and customers. If social media is not part of an organization's communications, it may be ignoring the primary way of reaching a core and emerging demographic.

Simple practices also win the day. For example, the CEO of a Toronto-based growth-driven technology company launched a monthly gathering where staff could join their boss for breakfast. Employees loved his effort and connection, and engagement and innovation rose. The additional benefits of simply walking the halls and production lines, and having meaningful conversations with employees about who they are, their concerns and ideas, can work wonders.

A note of caution needs to go with these efforts – a one-time focus may yield immediate short-term improvements to employee and customer engagement, but the results likely won't be meaningful. These efforts need to be embedded into the way that CEOs work, otherwise the benefits will be short-lived and the degree of commitment questioned. CEOs who formally weave small-business-owner values and thinking into their management practices can entrench this front-line focus into the corporate culture. The impact on your brand and competitive positioning will be positive and sustainable.

In 2014, CEOs should strive to spend less time in the corporate office and more time on the front lines to truly make a long-term difference.

Ian Cullwick is vice-president of leadership and human resources research at the Conference Board of Canada (@ConfBoardofCda).