Beyond the Alpha | Brunswick Group

Beyond the Alpha

Career editor, journalist and author James Ashton talks about his book, The Nine Types of Leader, that draws on insights from over 400 interviews. By Brunswick’s Caroline Daniel.

The personality of any CEO is made up of more than just the sum of their public business strategies and private lifestyle choices—even if some of the latter are now being revealed via Zoom bookshelves. Instead, like any political leader, the success or failure of their term at the top is played out dynamically—in public and private—by how they respond to events and the hand they are dealt. Not all are skilled at managing the demands of modern corporate leadership.

James Ashton Headshot Crop

But understanding the CEO’s personality, leadership style, strengths and idiosyncrasies all matter—especially to their staff. Their character has an impact that extends throughout the organization, potentially reshaping its culture and the management styles of its other executives and those it does business with.

Drawing on 20 years’ experience in over 400 interviews with business leaders, including Jeff Immelt and Richard Branson, James Ashton assembled his insights into leadership personalities into the book, The Nine Types of Leader. A former City Editor of the London Evening Standard and The Sunday Times, now an author and host of the podcast, “Leading with James Ashton,” he is a regular columnist and interviewer for national newspapers including the Daily, Sunday Telegraph and The Times on business, leadership, technology and investment. On his podcast, he features conversations between bosses from the worlds of business, charity, the arts and sport, who share their leadership lessons and stories.

I spoke to Ashton as part of a Brunswick webinar in January about how leaders of today, and those advising them, can apply the lessons he has learned over his career. We also took some questions from the audience. His answers shed light not just on the personalities of current CEOs, but also on how our expectations of CEOs and the organizations they lead are changing. Sneak preview: All CEOs need to be “campaigners” now. And a watch out: Even if advisors may still want to “anonymize” a CEO interview by putting the CEO in a beige meeting room, with beige fixtures—James will still find a way to make that part of his story. A CEO’s personality will still shine through, whichever of the nine types they are.

How did you manage to categorize so many different kinds of leader down to just nine types?
I actually started with far fewer types and I worked up to nine. It was particularly the sellers that I started off with. I was fascinated that there was this cohort—all these people who are now top leaders who were selling shampoo and fragrances in the 1990s for Procter & Gamble. They were also the Mars generation, the Unilever generation. What was it that they learned then that meant they are running the world today? You got Tim Davie [Director-General] at the BBC; you’ve got Gavin Patterson [formerly CEO of BT Group] now at Salesforce; you’ve got the bosses of Levi Strauss, Ralph Lauren, Imperial Brands. I christened them “the sellers.” Then there were other, more obvious types. I think everyone would recognize a “founder” when they see them. Everyone would have a sense of what an “alpha” is. I kept adding on until I got to nine and then I thought, “That’s just about the waterfront.”

Did coming up with these different types of leaders make you reflect on interviews that you had done in the past?
With all of them, there’s a sense of confrontation. With some of them of course—and this might apply a lot to the alphas—the focus really is the “who,” the big, big names. They couldn’t quite just read you their shopping list, but almost—it’s enough just being in the room with an alpha. Pick any of them—the big banking bosses, some of those big tech giants. And you can get a piece. You just have to interview a Branson. Did he say the best things that day? I did him twice, actually and I’m not sure he did. Sheryl Sandberg was another great one if we’re focusing on the “who.”

Where the interest with some of the other, more thoughtful types—the lover or maybe the diplomat—is not the “who,” but the “what.” The types of thing they will discuss. I really enjoyed interviewing Chris Anderson at TED. It was a very, very honest interview. We talked about loss. We talked about failure, because, of course, he soared very high with Future Publishing, and he crashed. And TED was a little unit within Future that he kind of took with him as his consolation prize, as he retreated to New York.

Really, you just need to find someone interesting. So I went to see [Daily Express owner and former pornographer] Richard Desmond. And, I mean, I’ve never hit the asterisk key as much in my life. It was just glorious. It was all shooting from the hip. The butler came in with a banana. There were 27 international copies of [celebrity news and gossip publication] OK Magazine out on the coffee table. He was just bored. But it was a lovely write up, I thought.

If the great leaders of today and tomorrow are meant to be authentic... it’s not just about talking to the workforce. It’s about talking to everyone.

The age of the alpha might be over because people are talking a lot more about collaborative styles of leadership, the role of ESG, et cetera. Can you talk about that charismatic, dominant leadership style and where that might go next?
I think it’s already gone there—into Silicon Valley. Alpha is such a pejorative term. You know, “Oh, they’re awful.” I try to counterbalance the book a bit in that the last type, the ninth type and the forward-looking type, is the “humans.” They’re much more the ones that are well versed to operate in the glass door area. The corporation is more porous than ever, whereas the alpha is very much the superhuman. I do try to point out their positives. They can be good at grinding things through and so on. But yeah, there’s probably a better way. There are ways now of bringing people with you—being honest, admitting mistakes.

I remember interviewing Jeff Immelt who ran GE for many years after Jack Welch. It was the day after the opening of the Olympic Games in London and, of course, GE is one of the big sponsors. But he hadn’t been to the opening ceremony because he’d broken three of his ribs. And I remember thinking as I left, what an uncharacteristic sign of weakness for an alpha leader, because they don’t like to give anything away.

The big, sprawling conglomerates aren’t really there anymore. If you think back to the Hanson empire—I think it was cigarettes, building materials and frozen chickens at one point, all just pulled together because one guy who sat on top said, “I'm going to get into frozen chickens today.” We’ve had a streamlining of leadership and streamlining of companies.

The place where the alpha’s been rebooted is Silicon Valley because the alphas and the founders have a lot quite a lot in common. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, these are the leaders who are driving growth. Wall Street investors around the world, who elsewhere push for good governance and so on, are totally supplicants: If you can deliver growth, you can really lead how you want. It comes down to the profit imperative.

You write that “Every leader needs to be a campaigner now, given the demands of the stakeholder society, or be in some part a campaigner.” Can you talk about that?
Some of the language—words like “passion” and “authenticity”—is totally overused, but actually still quite meaningful. “Purpose” is one, “profit with purpose.” It’s overused but everyone knows what you mean. That concept of purpose is the key to the campaigner.

The good campaigners are the people who understand that profit is still the central imperative, but it’s got to be about a lot more than that. You have a platform, you have to use it to achieve something. One of the key tenets of ESG is doing good while still making money. We all think of Paul Polman. It’s more than 10 years since he came up with a sustainable living plan. There was a press conference where he grandly drank a glass of water taken from the River Thames that had been treated by Unilever’s water treatment. Others have followed in his wake. What Ajay Banga did at Mastercard over the last 10 years is financial inclusion—bringing the unbanked into the financial money system. Obviously, it’s in Mastercard's interests, although many of the hundreds of millions they’ve brought into the system over the last five to 10 years will make absolutely no money for them for many, many years. But I think it’s something: It’s finding a cause that is absolutely aligned with what it is that makes you profit.

Being a CEO used to mean decades-long leadership. Now, it’s increasingly around four or five years. I’m interested in your take about why that’s happened.
There’s a lot in there about the relationship with the board, managing through what shareholders want. The best ones—and there are a lot of examples in there, like Peter Brabeck at Nestlé—he’s had 50 years at the company. There are plans—Nespresso, for example—that on his watch took 20 years. So there are all kinds of successes around longevity. But some leaders are fulfilling short-term successes because of the demand for instant results.

Sometimes the boards get the wrong people. I don’t think anybody sets out to be a bad leader. People who are choosing sometimes choose badly. A company likes to be seen to have bench strength so, wherever possible, they take the strongest internal candidate and compare that person with what the market has to offer. Too often, their instincts aren’t right. So, it’s about the innate conservatism of board decision making, to some degree.

James Ashton Book Cover

Can you talk about the role of “the fixers”? The timing issue for leadership is extremely interesting here—you can declare victory and then go off, heroically, but then a few years later, the company might be doing badly.
A cynical writer might say that CEOs and those around them are thinking about legacy almost as soon as they’ve arrived. This might be why they’re pushed out before their time. But fixers are the Red Adairs of business, if you like. They’re not quite putting out the fires on the oil rigs, but they are the people you pick up the red phone and call when a company is in crisis.

There are awesome examples in private equity. I write about Tim Parker who was at The AA [the British automobile association], [car repair chain] Kwit Fit and Samsonite. I had a long conversation with Moya Greene about what she did at the Royal Mail. I think they’re really not afraid to be unpopular. They are there to think the unthinkable and do what it takes to call the company back from the brink. In a lot of these instances, including what Stephen Hester did at RBS, it starts with the finances. You need to get the people behind you, but then you need to fix the finances, and then fix operationally.

These characters are very good at defining the challenge and at managing their own personal risk. Moya Greene is a good example. Margaret Thatcher famously said she wouldn’t sell “The Queen’s Head.” It was a transaction that eluded Peter Mandelson when he was business secretary. So Greene was up for the job, but she wanted to know that the government of the day was committed to an IPO, a proper privatization. That conversation was the moment she said, “Yeah, I'll come in,” because then she could see how to frame success.

The best companies never really need to be fixed in this way. But they have this almost perpetual fix. Ivan Menezes, what he did at Diageo is almost a perpetual approach, rather than these big corporate heart attacks that are probably not to be recommended.

What kind of preparation should a CEO do before being interviewed?
A good profile interview is half about the person, half about the organization. I’m going to want to know what your favorite TV program is. I need to know who your mentor was. It’s non-negotiable: You’ve got to give a little bit of yourself.

Beyond that, your answer shouldn’t sound too corporate. You can spout all that corporate stuff, but I’m not going to write it up. It’s human—you’ve got to think you’re across the table from someone. You’re not on a throne.

If the great leaders of today and tomorrow are meant to be authentic, to use that word again, it’s not just about talking to the workforce. It’s about talking to everyone. There are no silos anymore. A great test of that is to sit down with someone who isn’t going to just say, “yes,” to whatever you say. That’s something that they all should be able to do.

Of course, there’s one exception to that rule, and that’s a leader whose performance has spoken for itself. Someone like Erik Engström at RELX. At The Sunday Times, I christened him “the silent Swede.” He absolutely loved it. He never does any media. You don’t need to when you’ve produced the kind of performance he has over a decade.

You wrote that purpose, authenticity and delivery are characteristics that all these types of leaders should have in common. Could you talk about that?
A great leader is someone who inspires great followers, great followership. Having purpose means you know what they stand for. Authenticity is you can believe them, and believability stretches from the CEO standing in front of that virtual town hall and saying, “We’re gonna do this and here’s why,” to being believable in an interview with somebody like me. I feel a dread when people don’t know their own brief. I start to think you’re just here for the money.

And then delivery is interesting. There’s something about what they’ve done earlier in their careers. But it also might be that they’ve shown the green shoots or something. Good leaders and the board around them are very good at defining what success looks like.

The CEO who will thrive is one that can somehow encourage shared mission, shared purpose. People are there because they because they want to be. So it is about shared ideas and shared progress.

You mentioned the Procter & Gamble-Mars-Unilever generation. In America, there were PayPal and others, a real group of people who were extraordinarily successful and went on to become extraordinary founders. Is there a next generation of that sort of a coterie of business leaders, who’ve all grown up in a particular culture?
We should also mention that there’s almost a constant production line at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. But I think Procter & Gamble, and probably PayPal as well, there’s something about those organizations where something changed and a line was drawn. Either the company was sold or the model changed, and those people are really pushed out into the world and into lots of different jobs.

You’ve got to think about those corporate successes of the noughties and now and the skills that every organization wants—so the next-generation example must be a Google or a Facebook or an Amazon. But there also needs to be some sort of catalyst for those great leaders to want to go off and lead something else. I think you had that at P&G. When Gavin Patterson left after nine years, he was the last of the 1990 intake to leave. They’d all joined, learned their stuff, and decided they didn’t want to move to Geneva or to Cincinnati.

Every corporate now wants to hire like Google. I just wonder whether the people who are learning great things within Google and Amazon are going to have sufficient reason to leave. These tech companies are amazing in that everyone moves around within the company every 18 months or two years. There’s always something else to do.

We sometimes characterize leaders by one program that tends to sort of define them. You mentioned Stephen Hester at RBS. He was photographed on the back of a horse in hunting clothes. Obviously, Gavin Patterson has long had issues around what he looked like. What do you do if you’re a CEO and don’t want to get pigeonholed by one image that comes to haunt you as a leader?
It’s difficult to know what you can do about one particular image. Stephen rode out because his wife at the time, Barbara, was Master of the Hunt, I think. He’d much rather be tending the borders in his garden than riding out on the hunt. So, I don’t know how you counter that. But I don’t think you just go into an interview trying to touch nerves. Some things they’ve just got to get over. I mean, you talk about Gavin and his hair. He was talking about that even in an interview in The Sunday Times the other week. For a business leader in their fifties, probably long luxurious hair is a nice problem to have.

Can you compare UK and European CEOs with American ones? Why is there such a massive gap between wealth creation for Americans compared with the UK and Europe?
I think it’s almost got more to do with the types of business than the types of leader. It seems like the Americans invent new things and the Europeans regulate them. I think it actually gets to the core of this current issue about whether we are going to remake the listing rules in the UK.

You can talk about the cult of the CEO. I mean, we have got these fantastically powerful and confident leaders in the US, who have been built up by those that will put money behind them. And I suppose more of the ones I’ve interviewed in Europe lead legacy businesses, family businesses. So different industries and different ways of running them.

As we look ahead to the next decade of global recovery after COVID, what kind of CEOs does the world need now?
Well, we can talk about what is the modern corporation now. We used to have this company where everyone got off the train, trooped into the skyscraper. And the CEO came down from the corner office and did a town hall every now and then. Or possibly he or she was off on a plane. Now we’ve got this virtual, very porous company. The CEO who will thrive is one that can somehow encourage shared mission, shared purpose. People are there because they because they want to be. So it is about shared ideas and shared progress. There’s a Swedish company I mentioned in the book that hasn’t got a CEO. I think that’s a bit of a nonsense. Likewise, I always slightly balk at the CEO who says, “Oh, you don't want to interview me, James. It’s not me; it’s a team effort.” The great leader is one that could be very comfortable and share the ideas and be on the factory floor, but still be someone who is there for a reason: To lead and to make the biggest decisions.


Caroline Daniel is a Partner based in the Brunswick’s London office and a former Editor of the Weekend FT.