Public achievements of business leaders are well known, but how they do what they do is less visible. This demystification of senior leadership is what Head Office has tried to do for over a decade. The column has explored the connections between CEO workplaces and their workstyles, aiming to understand the worklife practices and leadership traits that make them successful. Now, after 15 years of writing on workspace, it’s time to end Head Office, and share its accumulated insights.
First, a bit about the Head Office cohort. The column, which began in March 2010, has featured 108 people. Over 85% were conducted in person; the rest, virtually, owing to the pandemic. Thirty per cent of the cohort were promoters; 41%, professionals; and 29%, start-up founders.
I scoured workplaces in diverse cities, from London, Boston and Seoul to Jamshedpur and Coimbatore. Within India, the cohort was concentrated in Mumbai, Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR), and Bengaluru.
The youngest Head Office occupant was 30. The oldest, 89. Most are in their 30s-50s. Companies varied, from start-ups to conglomerates and multinationals. Close to 25% of the cohort were women. Head Office featured nearly 50 industries, which has been one of the most intellectually stimulating aspects of writing this column, as the company heads and I delved deep into their companies, sectors and journeys during our discussions.
Also read: BCG: Where the business of thinking comes to life
Finally, business success. Quantitative measures of business success are difficult since many leaders have changed jobs over time. But apart from a few that delivered sub-optimal performance, Head Office chief executive officers have been market leaders, innovators and pioneers. In other words, this cohort offers robust qualitative insights.
The first insight is that the office matters to a CEO. Redesigning the C-suite is a rite of passage for a new CEO. Many change the furniture, the artwork or the entire décor while taking over their role.
I have also noticed that male leaders are often more involved in the design of their workspace than they are of their homes.
Start-ups are more frugal than more established companies. Investing in the right protein shake and the best health app is more important to them than building an art collection. Regardless of company size or sector, one universal theme emerged from our conversations: tangible spaces blend with intangible assets to create value on an everyday basis, something what I call “Leadership DRIVE”.
DRIVE stands for Decisions, Relationships, Ideas, Values and Energies—the five most essential intangible elements that I believe create economic value on an everyday basis. It is an acronym that I have devised based on my cumulative Head Office columns.
First, “decisions”. Arguably, the most important aspect of any chief executive’s role is to take decisions, whether they relate to strategy, finance or people. The ability to make good decisions is based on several factors, such as intellect and instinct. And it is shaped by workplace tangibles, meetings and communication technology, without which decisions are hard to take or implement.
Progressive chief executives have devised specific patterns for meetings and communication to enable productive decision-making. For example, the head of one of India’s biggest business groups minimised email and conference calls, and started regular videoconferencing over a decade ago, much before Zoom and Teams became pandemic fixtures.
Companies with remote teams emphasise mindful communication. “We’ve started moving away from meetings for the sake of updates, and we do meetings for solving problems. People are now more thoughtful, reflective, with more of a written work culture,” says a tech start-up founder whose team is distributed across the world.
Second, “relationships”. Whether it is managing relationships with direct reports, internal teams or external stakeholders, managing people is as vital as taking the right decisions. Even CEOs of industries with “hard” assets, such as banking and infrastructure, emphasised the role of people and culture.
If there is one word that has consistently emerged over the past decade in the context of relationships and workplaces, it is “collaboration”. The word is ubiquitous, and its most basic expressions is a randomly placed set of sofas where employees are expected to gather. But the Head Office cohort offered more intelligent expressions of it.
Too many, in fact, to mention here, but one stands out as a pioneer. In 2010, I saw an India head of a multinational seated in an open-plan office, next to a display of diapers. “Collaboration” for that company meant a complete embargo on individual private offices, an increased square foot allocation towards public spaces, meeting rooms and employee amenities, a significant investment in supporting infrastructure and a transformed work culture, which eliminated any level-linked perks, such as reserved parking slots or different-sized workstations. “Cultural interventions” were vital, the CEO said, as “people have to want to work in teams, people have to feel comfortable, that’s the way to get stuff done, you have to adjust behaviours to get the most out of it.” It is a line of thinking that many firms have subsequently adopted.
Covid has not eliminated the need for physical proximity. Work patterns might vary—some companies are fully back in office, some hybrid—yet most leaders want to reclaim the serendipity of in-office collaboration.
Third, “ideas”. Chief executives prefer execution over strategy and ideation. But ideas are necessary to animate one’s execution. This is where the archetype of a visionary CEO sitting alone and ideating in their C-suite is extinct. The leaders are now talking about which problems they choose to solve, which questions to ask, how they define the purpose of their company, and they are creating spaces where these problems can be collectively tackled. Take the example of this tech founder whose room is full of writable surfaces, with complex formulae, diagrams and lists scribbled everywhere. He spends as much time in his personal workspace as he does in the war-room, which is clad with wall-to-ceiling whiteboards. Even older CEOs have started including whiteboards in meeting spaces, an indication that ideas require physical space for collective sharing and expression.
Fourth, “values”. Values are life’s most intangible assets, and express themselves through real-life behaviours and workplace design. Offices are natural storytellers of values, especially brand values. Branded offices can be dazzling. For example, a sporting company with a slide and rock-climbing wall or an advertising agency with colourful installation art. But the most compelling narrative is the personal one, the story the CEO is telling the visitors about himself or herself.
The head of an engineering major truly lives by her values. Her concern for sustainability and frugality is reflected in her workspace, her mindset, her knowledge of green building materials and her business strategy. Sustainability, as a strategic intent, came up less than 10% of the time during our interaction, unfortunately, highlighting this CEO’s choice of values at work and beyond.
Fifth, “energies”. This was the big surprise. CEOs are associated with long workdays, hectic schedules and infinite reserves of energy to power them through it all. In fact, many of them have specific hobbies that nourish their energies. Music, fitness, reading, Sudoku, art, spirituality, gardening—CEOs are intentional and consistent about pursuing their personal interests. The office is then the site and source of self-renewal, with many of these hobbies energising them.
To see how this could apply to your leadership journey, give yourself a rating out of 20 points for each “DRIVE” parameter and see where you score the highest and the lowest.
Do any of the best practices mentioned above resonate? Does the dashboard give you insights into how you do what you do? For example, I’ve learnt that I’m better at curating ideas than managing people. Also, I need help taking decisions, especially in a fast-moving environment, all of which make me a better thought leader than a CEO. These insights help me to do what I do. Connect with me if you’d like to dissect your DRIVE dashboard.
I would like to end with a huge thanks to my dear reader, for reading my writing over the past 15 years.
And an equally big thanks to the team behind Head Office. Readers do not get to go behind-the-scenes of a column. I would like to thank my editors, copy editors, photographers, researchers, design thinkers, all the PR and corporate communication representatives, and everyone who has facilitated introductions to chief executives. It has been a privilege working with you all.
Aparna Piramal Raje conducts keynote sessions and workshops on leadership, the future of work and workplace well-being.