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Subject Area: Regional Management Studies
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Article citation: Check Teck Foo, (2010) "The search for Art of War CEO", Chinese Management Studies, Vol. 4 Iss: 1, pp. -
Since 1984, a quarter of century ago, when I was appointed as an Assistant Director for Strategic Planning at the National Productivity Board, the role of chief executive officer (CEO) has fascinated me (see a select list of articles in references). It has continued to be a topic that I regularly return to in my writings.
Very recently, I was asked by the CEO of Recruit Strategy, Ms Christie Khoo, to develop a CEO recruitment process based on Art of War, the timeless, 2,500 years old work of strategy by Sun Tzu. Christie Khoo, a deep fan of Art of War, had herself founded a highly successful company (since 2004) upon the principles in the Art of War.
That led me to reflect deeply on the current process of recruiting CEOs. This paper is developed as a viewpoint in response. Now what is the typical, usual procedure for the search of a CEO? Unlike other positions, the role of CEO is pivotal for the success of an enterprise. He or she is, for many organizations, is contributing in a holistic, multi-faceted yet integrative way. His/her role as a corporate leader has already been widely dealt with in the literature.
What emerges from my reading of the Art of War is the thinking of Sun Tzu that the CEO as “General” is very much in a central role. For many years I had been leading at Nanyang Technological University, and as a consequence developed a set of Art of War cards. I illustrate the centrality concept of Sun Tzu by of one of these cards (Figure 1).
In other words, central to the role of CEO is his/her ability to “realize” or pull together to work for him/her, those forces inherent in “Tao,” “Heaven,” “Earth,” “Leaders-leadership,” and “Organization.” “Tao” is a most profound concept to explain and grasp. Lao Tzu himself said, at the very beginning of another of Chinese classic, Tao Te Ching, the Tao that may be explained is not the eternal Tao. Metaphorically, I will put Tao as the way that is long lasting, sustainable and in accord with the nature of things.
“Heaven” may be conceived of as the uncontrollable, external environmental forces. In contrast “Earth” is determinable and ought to be factored into strategy making. Thus, Sun Tzu shared his deep thoughts in Art of War on developing a typology of grounds and prescriptions on the right strategy. The other two forces as translated are much easier to grasp: leadership as well as organization.
Now, the responsibility for finding the right person to be such a CEO often rests with the Board of Directors. For many companies, the Chairman of the Board of Directors is usually the person who initiates the search process. Clearly, he or she has to bear in mind, the goals and needs of the organization. Often the “right” person is in the mind of the Chairman but it is altogether a different matter to put the concept down in writing.
What about having a clearly defined and sufficiently detailed job description for the role of the CEO? The practical issue: is it really useful to have one? To some extent no, for it is by far more difficult to confine within an employment contract, what in reality is an extensively wide role of a CEO.
The company may itself be driving the search process. Or, as is increasingly the case, an independent recruitment firm is tasked with the responsibility. Whoever may drive the process, it is important to realize that it is likely to be a time-consuming process. Both parties should be prepared to set aside six to nine months for finding the right person for CEO. You need that length of time too to generate a diverse pool of candidature.
Next you come to the timeline for implementation (Figure 2). Since it is a prolonged process, an acting CEO should be appointed in the interim. Assuming CEO search is hired as an independent consultant there should then be an agreement on the process for searching, listing, interviewing, and final selection of say three to five candidates. Equally important is the need for thorough checks on references for likely appointees. Having chosen a specific person, the next phase, often delicate, is the negotiation of the contract.
As an additional measure, it may be useful to have an arrangement for coaching the CEO. As indicated, the suggested approach as will be advocated by CEO search is management by objectives, with Art of War as a tool for deepening strategic thinking. Such organizations are likely to have a performance framework in place – one that inevitably will involve key quantifiable indicators, such as sales, market share (where it may be estimated), profits, and return on investment. Here, we shall illustrate how the Art of War may be utilized by CEO search in assessing the capabilities of a potential candidate for CEO.
As shown in Figure 3, Sun Tzu wrote for posterity in Art of War, Chapter 3, literally “Attacking Stratagem” – how generals ought to be ranked. He focuses the assessment on how the primary objective in the winning of a war had been achieved. So just achieving the objective, i.e. winning, alone, is not sufficient.
The how matters just as much. For if a war is won through attacking cities that resulted in heavy losses (i.e. leaving a third of his men as corpses) then the general (read CEO) responsible ought to be lowly ranked. In sharp contrast is the most highly ranked of all generals: he who prevails through an intelligently conceived, counter-strategy. In other words, Sun Tzu valued most highly the deeply strategic thinking CEO.
What is now very popular in the west is the creative, innovative capability of thinking outside the box. If you scrutinize the Art of War by Sun Tzu, you may be shocked to learn that some 2,500 years ago, he had thought in rather similar vein. How do you decipher such a thought pattern from the Art of War? In his explicit criterion, it is the general “[…] who wins yet not via fighting […]” Within his scheme of performance appraisal, such a general excels beyond another who “[…] wins a hundred victories, in a hundred battles […].” In our modern usage, he acts outside the box in achieving the goal (Figure 4).
Whilst, it may be very difficult to locate such an ideal Art of War CEO as prescribed by Sun Tzu, it should be possible for one to be coached towards becoming one. That is the reason why CEO search is set up, to coach new CEOs to be thinking like Sun Tzu. Was there such a role as the coach in ancient China?
The closest to the modern-day, CEO coach is perhaps the “Strategy Counselor.” One of the prized attributes that ancient Chinese emphasized in imperial leadership is objectivity. It is far easier to be objective when one is not directly or personally involved – the CEO coach. A CEO may be facilitated to make unemotional, objective assessments of any evolving situation. Clearly, objectivity of the mind may be attained more easily if the CEO coach is around to facilitate such a process.
Another prized attribute is being able to consider issues from a bird’s eye view: overall, holistic perspective of a scenario, case or event. The CEO coach may probe the CEO with the “but” questions: “But have you considered how the complainants will respond if you […]” or “[…] Have you thought about the backlash from negative publicity if you decide here to […].” The key is that the CEO coach merely enables, and never takes any decisions: decision making remains with the CEO.
Finally, CEOs are rather lonely people, at least within the organization. They cannot always be as open as they would wish. Oftentimes, they find it necessary to bounce ideas off an independent person. The CEO coach, if uninvolved in the day-to-day running of the business, can be the sounding board. For this reason, he or she as CEO coach needs to master the art of listening. Most importantly, the CEO counselor (rather than coach) should never ever play the role of the CEO!
Foo, C.T. (1989), “How the chief executive officer can maximise corporate productivity”, Productivity Digest, pp. 8–9
Foo, C.T. (2002), “Turbulence, Sun Tzu and CEO coaching”, Marketing Insights, April-June, pp. 8–9
Foo, C.T. (2009), “The Art of War: system of systems (SoS), F22 raptor and brain of CEO”, Chinese Management Studies, Vol. 3 No. 3
Foo, C.T. and Lee, K. (1990), “Structuring a CEO-responsive productivity information system”, Malaysian Accountant, June, pp. 3–7
Foo, C.T. and McKiernan, P. (2007), “Molecular, structural firm adaptations to environments: empirical Tao of the CEO”, Chinese Management Studies, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 6–24
Foo, C.T., McKiernan, P. and Wong, J. (2009), “Cognitive mapping of CEOs: confronting Chinese competitiveness”, International Journal of Indian Culture and Business Management, Vol. 2 No. 5, pp. 571–84