How Much Influence Does a CEO Have?
Forbes writer Eric Jackson galvanized the business web's attention late last month with a troubling headline: "Here's Why Google and Facebook Might Completely Disappear in the Next Five Years." (I figured an association online community manager somewhere audibly sighed after reading that, then began adding new images to a Pinterest board, "Images of Despair About an Unstable Universe.") But embedded in Jackson's provocative argument is an even more troubling claim: Leaders are more or less meaningless.
Jackson's specific point is that however much they try to innovate, web-based companies like Yahoo and Facebook remain products of the times in which they were founded, subject to all the prejudices and blinkered thinking of that moment. Yahoo, for instance, was the world leader in web-portal expertise a decade ago, but that isn't particularly meaningful in a mobile-ized world, and the company is struggling. More broadly, though, Jackson is making a case for "organizational ecology," which argues that:
organizational outcomes have much more to do with industry effects than who the CEO is and the choices he or she makes. [Organizational ecologists] study birth and death rates of populations of organizations, as well as the effects of age, competition and resources in the surrounding environment on an organization's birth and death rate.
Put another way: Leaders are lousy at predicting the future. They stick with what worked when they started, and don't effectively move their organizations forward. So ultimately the future moves the organization for them---or puts them out of business.
It's true that leaders tend to be bad at predicting the future. We all are: every so often I see somebody post a link showing a story from decades ago about what life will be like in the 21st century, and we all have a good laugh about it. But I think association leaders do have more influence than Jackson suggests, and aren't simply passive respondents to market forces.
The main reason I think that is because associations are, practically by definition, active respondents to market forces. An association's role is to listen to members in the aggregate, gathering information about where the growth opportunities and threats are. Not every association does a great job of gathering that information, or presenting it back to members so they can act on it, but the antennae for detecting what's coming next is built into association DNA. Corporations run under the mantra, "Evolve or die." Associations monitor the evolution patterns.
Well, in a perfect world, they do---and enough of them continue to do it well enough to keep the doors open. But reading Jackson's article make me think that the next big challenge for associations---just as much as membership, internationalization, nondues revenue, and mobile---is improving their monitoring skills. If it's true that "the next 5 - 8 years could be incredibly dynamic," as Jackson writes, members will have a growing need for help from their associations for tools to address those changes.
So what does the effective CEO do on that front? Give members more opportunities to meet in person? Double down on online communications tools? More data mining?