CEO for a day: what can you learn?

Written by
Mary Appleton

07 Mar 2017

07 Mar 2017 • by Mary Appleton

Mark Freebairn, senior partner, Odgers Berndtson

Many business leaders we deal with are concerned about the loss of trust in recent years and disillusionment among the younger generation. 

They would like to contribute personally to help build a stronger understanding of what business does, what companies contribute, and we want to use our position to help them. These are challenging times in business, with the future uncertain in many ways. We see it as part of our core role to help today’s leaders understand the kind of talent they need for the future, and support them in developing and finding appropriate people. 

‘CEO for a Day’ was originally launched in 2004 across our offices in Germany, and the scheme has run in many other countries across the network since, involving more than 700 chief executives and students. 

The UK pilot in 2016 was a natural extension, and following its success, we will be expanding the scheme in the UK this year. Students were chosen, following a rigorous selection process, to shadow chief executives from organisations including BT Group, DFS, Edelman, ITV, Kier Group, Legal & General, The National Trust and Standard Chartered. Odgers Berndtson’s CEO (pictured right) has also taken part. 

The idea behind the scheme is for CEOs to give their student a ‘warts and all’ experience on the day – involving them in a normal range of activity so they get a fair sense of what the role entails and the real demands of leading a major organisation.

Kester Scrope, CEO, Odgers Berndtson

It’s refreshing for any CEO to receive candid feedback from a young person with whom there’s otherwise no direct connection. Strong leadership requires a capacity to engage across generations.

Trust in established organisations and business has taken a hit in recent years, and leaders today have a part to play in building confidence among the younger generation. Millennials typically seek more openness and transparency, and older generations of leaders need to accept and embrace that if they want to engage with a new generation of talent. This initiative is a chance for today’s leaders to engage very directly with some of the challenges presented.

As many of the participants told us, this is an amazing opportunity to see what it takes to be the leader of a major organisation. The point of the scheme is for the student to shadow a CEO through every aspect of their day – so it gives them a real insight into what the job involves and what the life is like. They can also talk about this in a personal way – which is an exceptional opportunity for many of the students and can be an eye-opener.

The student experience

Why did you decide to get involved in the ‘CEO for a day’ initiative?

I wanted to experience the day-to-day life of an executive. As a computer science student I was also interested in the technical side of management and the workings of a modern company. Shadowing Kester (right) was a really great experience, the day was packed with meetings and interviews with people from across the company. There was a lot to learn but it was very rewarding and the tasks were always interesting.

What did you learn?

The experience taught me that being a great CEO means more than having organisational skills – empathy and friendliness seemed most important, especially when making connections with employees and partners. It helped immensely with understanding what makes a good leader and highlighted my flaws and qualities. Kester is a great role model and I’ll be doing my best to match his skillset in my postgraduate years. The day affirmed that formal education is good but many of the skills needed to be an executive are experience-based, or not taught in universities. My challenge now is to find places to develop these skills when job postings that can accommodate such ambition are hard to find.

Ian Filby, CEO, DFS UK

It’s always good to spend time with young people and see how they view the market in which we operate. I learned that I mustn’t forget what I can offer to the next generation of leaders. I was keen to demonstrate that with hard work and dedication, along with finding good mentors, the role of CEO is not outside of anyone’s reach. 

Lakechia shadowed my day as we felt this was the best way to get a true insight into my role and responsibilities. It was a Monday, so the morning was dedicated to focusing on the previous week’s trading results and working with the senior management team to identify opportunities for the following week. 

In the afternoon she accompanied me on one of my regular visits to our closest upholstery factory in Doncaster for an update and check-in with the manager. We also visited our newest customer distribution centre to see how the new operating system was bedding in. 
To complete the day, I had a one to one with our head of customer experience and insight who updated me on current progress and future plans. I think Lakechia certainly got an opportunity to see the breadth of a CEO’s role! 

I firmly believe it’s our responsibility to nurture future leaders. I certainly had help from some great mentors. It’s also insightful to watch and absorb the mindset of future talent. Having been brought up surrounded by technology, the younger generation interact with brands in a different way. It was refreshing to hear Lakechia’s perspective. 

I hope this debunks myths about senior leadership and bridges the gap between the theory, which they may be learning at university, and the practice which they glean from the experience. I also hope it inspires young people to realise that reaching their full potential is not impossible. Having come through a recession in the past decade I’m concerned that new talent might not see a positive future. I hope that by providing this type of experience for the younger generation, they’ll feel more optimistic about their own potential for success.

Ed Williams, CEO, Edelman

Young people have few opportunities to figure out what they want to do in life. Education gives you a set of tools and a capacity to think critically, but I’d struggle to give you examples of ways they’re able to test their ideas of what they want to do for a living. 
‘CEO for a Day’ is a learning opportunity. Having an outside perspective, which doesn’t come from years of corporate experience gets us thinking differently. 

It was important to make the day as close to reality as possible, so I went ahead with my usual meetings and we didn’t hold anything back. The student was under a non-disclosure agreement, but was privy to every detail. The only slightly exceptional meeting was at Buckingham Palace with the director of royal communications, who had some great advice. 
I make a point of inviting outside perspectives into the agency. We have an advisory board which provides counsel and challenges our thinking, strategy and the way we operate. This was a similar exercise for me. It showed me you don’t need years of experience to teach lessons: the day was not only reflective, it gave me a sense of where we could improve. 
Business leaders talk about the importance of seeking outside perspectives, but few bother doing it. Younger generations are talked at more than they are listened to. I think they have a lot to say about the state of affairs in this country, but are rarely given a platform.