October 2015 | 

It’s Lonely at the Top: Wharton’s Antidote for CEOs

It’s Lonely at the Top: Wharton’s Antidote for CEOs

Today’s CEOs are facing new kinds of outside pressures that previous generations could never have imagined. From dissident shareholders rallying support on the Internet to public-relations debacles going viral on Twitter, from intervention-minded corporate directors and institutional investors to new competitors that weren’t even in your market a few years earlier, the premium for getting it right at the top is greater than ever.

“You are in a fishbowl when you run a public company,” says Maggie Wilderotter, executive chair of Frontier Communications, who recently ended an 11-year stint as CEO of the nation’s fourth largest phone company. “A lot more people are watching you — and in a 24-hour news cycle, not just the business cycle.”

Wilderotter is one of the current and former CEOs who will share their insights in Wharton’s upcoming CEO Academy, an exclusive “boot camp” that provides a chance for CEOs to step away from daily pressures and strengthen their focus. They learn best practices and potential pitfalls from top academics and current and recent corporate executives while in active dialogue with other participants who arguably understand their challenges best.

Founded in 1999 by Dennis Carey, vice chairman of the executive search firm Korn Ferry, the program is now offered in partnership with Wharton, with a number of the world’s most renowned business educators taking part. Participants will hear from and interact with the likes of former Ford CEO Alan Mulally, credited with the iconic automaker’s turnaround, as well as former CEOs of top firms such as 3M, AIG, and Verizon and the current leaders of U.S. Steel and Harman International.

The CEO Academy has also been retooled to focus more intensely on the new kinds of problems faced by today’s CEOs, including changes in the media and shareholder engagement, and the need for business leaders to continuously improve and innovate. Carey says he’s struck by how much the job of CEO has changed in the 16 years since he started the program. At first, it was important for corporate leaders to simply become acclimated to the Internet. Now, technology has transformed leadership in profound and unexpected ways. “Suddenly these headwinds and sideways winds affect you as CEO and you don’t want to be either unprepared or simply blown about,” Carey explained.

In addition to the surge in shareholder activism and the plethora of Internet news sources, the growing to-do list for the engaged CEO, according to Carey, includes making cyber-security a top focus and understanding the needs of millennial workers who are more focused on career satisfaction than pay. At the same time, survival at the top frequently hinges on dealing with the concerns of large institutional investors — a talent rarely learned during a rise up the corporate ladder. The title of one of the sessions bluntly sums up the biggest pressure of all: “Innovate or Die.”

The cornerstone of the CEO Academy’s approach, and what sets it apart from other leadership seminars, is the emphasis on learning directly from experienced CEOs who have dealt with similar challenges. “You also learn what they would have done differently,” Carey reported, “and often they say they learn a lot more from their mistakes.”

For Frontier’s Wilderotter, the most important lessons were learned when she took over a very old-school and mostly rural landline-oriented phone company in 2004. Her biggest challenge was a crisis of employee confidence. “I had employees who hadn’t had raises, who didn’t know how to win, who were just going through the motions,” she explains. She went from office to office around the country during her first few months, listening to employees while drafting the plans that would grow Frontier’s workforce ten-fold and make it a telecommunications giant, especially adept at connecting customers in rural areas to the Internet.

“The CEO can be a pretty lonely job,” notes Wilderotter. Indeed, co-workers are unlikely to deliver hard truths to the person who signs their paycheck, while board members might be ill-positioned to offer practical day-to-day advice. That’s why she sees great value in veteran CEOs sharing their acquired wisdom with the next generation. “There is nothing like being a CEO,” she said, “until you’re the one sitting in that seat.”