CEO Guru: Dreams and ambitions

A chief executive officer (CEO) holds a unique position within a company.

It is often CEOs' dreams and ambitions that dictate the direction in which their businesses will go.

Success depends on their ability to think strategically, and to spot threats on the horizon.

It also requires the CEO to convince others, including shareholders, employees and customers, to buy in to the plan.

"I think it's a prerequisite to be a visionary," says Joe Plumeri, chief executive of global insurance broking group Willis.

"You do the CEO stuff, but now you've got to inspire people, you want people to have a vision of what it's all about."

'Grandma's house'

Mr Plumeri thinks the world has become a riskier place over the past 10 to 15 years.

Factors such as climate change, cybersecurity risks and the global financial crisis have made the going tougher for the insurance industry.

Consequently, getting alignment across the company about the way ahead is more important than ever.

Image caption Being the best is not just about making money, says Sir Martin Sorrell

Mr Plumeri calls his approach "grandma's house". He likens what happens in business to a parent's experience of getting their kids to endure the long car journey to visit the grandparents, where they know they will be spoiled.

He thinks CEOs should paint a vision of where the company is going so that employees will endure the ride.

"They'll do that as long as they know where grandma's house is," he says.

Clear direction

Sir Martin Sorrell, founder of giant advertising group WPP, says it is important to be clear with everyone about the plan.

"Being the best is not just about making money," he says. "It's about being qualitatively the best, not being the biggest."

Sir Martin is another leader who sees risks to corporate plans in the present business climate.

His "grey swans" - or visible threats as opposed to "black swans" or unknown threats - include the eurozone crisis, political instability in the Middle East, concerns about the Chinese economy, and the US fiscal deficit.

One protection against this kind of instability is corporate size and dominance, he says.

"I think it's more and more difficult for smaller companies," he observes.

But one useful quality that small businesses do have is agility, Sir Martin reasons, hence there is no reason why big businesses cannot be nimble too, as long as there is clear direction from the top.

He thinks his long experience with the company, which includes battling through three recessions, helps him to be a better navigator for the business.

'Same dream'

Management expert Steve Tappin who has worked with many chief executives, says that some consensus about the way ahead is vital.

"The best leaders are able to create a shared dream for the business that captures and lifts the hearts of everyone," he says.

Mr Tappin worries that many companies in the developed world lack leaders who are able to look hard to the long-term future.

He feels that Western businesses can learn a lot in this respect from enterprises based in other parts of the world, such as China.

Xia Hua is the founder of the Eve Fashion group. She says that she finds metaphors helpful when trying to share her ideas.

"I always believe that creating a brand is about sleeping in different beds but having the same dream," she says.

Ms Xia wants the company to move away from the conventional view of separation between staff, customers and other stakeholders, instead believing that all should be treated the same.

She describes her concept as "one group of people, one lifetime, one thing".

"Our common goal is to create a long-term future for the brand," she says.

'The right things'

Mr Tappin also points out that the scale of the ambition of many Asian business leaders is on another level that that of those in the West.

Liu Chuanzhi, founder of the computer manufacturer Lenovo, which is part of the giant Chinese conglomerate Legend Holdings, says his vision for the group is for it "to become an industry in its own right".

Furthermore, he says, he wants the company "to become the top enterprise across industries… not only in China, but in the whole world".

To some eyes, this may seem to be a staggering ambition, and Mr Liu accepts that it may be something he will have to leave to his successors to implement fully.

But in a sense, Mr Tappin says, it does not matter so much whether the plans are fully achievable or not.

What does matter, he says, is the impetus that is put behind the business.

He notes that Mr Liu also wants the company to be seen to be "exceptionally reputable and trustworthy" and suggests that perhaps this will be easier to achieve if the company has exceptional goals.

According to the doyen of management experts, the late Peter Drucker: "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."

The trick for modern chief executives lies in discovering what those "right things" are.