Why I didn’t want to be CEO anymore

The deputy chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi talks to the Post's Lillian Cunningham about our cultural fixation with being chief executive. (Lillian Cunningham, Gillian Brockell, Julio Negron and Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

It has become something of a taboo in our society to say you don't want to be a leader — especially if you are one. Richard Hytner, a former CEO at the global advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, experienced it firsthand and is trying to break that stigma.

In this interview, edited lightly for length and clarity, Hytner shares more about his own decision to resign as CEO and instead take on a deputy chairman position. He also talks about the research he did for his new book, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows, on what makes for an effective counselor versus decision-maker, and about our sometimes harmful cultural fixation with reaching the top.

The video above, which is part of our ongoing On Leadership interview series, highlights one of Hytner's stories. The full conversation is below:

Q. You gave up a chief executive role at Saatch & Saatchi. Do you remember how that conversation went?

I decided that I had enough of being the No. 1, all-out accountable leader, and that I really fancied trying a different role as a deputy. I said out loud in a corridor somewhere, “I just never want to be a chief executive ever again. It’s horrendous.”

I was hauled in by the HR director, and he said to me, “Whatever you do, Richard, do not ever again be heard in public saying you don’t want to be a chief executive.” And I asked him, “Why not?” He said, “Because people will think you don’t want to be a chief executive ever again.”

That was the kind of the point. I didn’t want to be.

Q. What lesson did you take from that exchange?

A. What I took from that was how people feel about deputies, assistants, number twos. There is still an embedded assumption that if you choose to be a No. 2, there’s something wrong with you. There’s a flaw. You lack ambition. You’ve lost your talent. In this race for the top, you’ve given up.

That’s why I decided I wanted to write this book: to bring the No. 2 position temporarily into the spotlight. To show people that there’s honor in it. There’s joy in it. There’s a craft in it. And you can lead from that position often more effectively than you can from being the out-front leader.

Q. Tell me more about the evolution of your career, and what you learned from holding a chief executive position?

A. I started in my career lusting to be the No. 1. I thought I was hardwired for it. I’m second in the family, I followed a very successful brother, so I felt the only way to survive was to be brilliant and reach the top. I climbed the ladder in the advertising industry to the point where I was a chief executive quite young, and I enjoyed it. I got a buzz from it. I got the adrenaline of action.

But as I developed through my career, what I began to sense was a discomfort. Particularly toward the end of my CEO reign — when I was CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi in Europe, Middle East and Africa — I began to feel a real weight on my shoulders, particularly around the people decisions and the frenetic pace to drive revenue and profitability. I began to really lust after a role where I could think more, where I would have more time and space.

I’m not a very swift decision-maker, in fact my boss thinks my best ideas come two days after a meeting rather than in a meeting. So I thought, “Well, why not try a position where that’s given expressed permission, as opposed to stick in the CEO role where I might actually continue to either disappoint myself or not meet the expectations of the pace at which you have to make these decisions?”

Since giving up that CEO slot and taking on a deputy role, I feel every bit as accountable for my own performance. I remain completely competitive and restless and ambitious, but the effort is channeled into something different and the skills it takes to influence the organization are just different. I must say, I find it much more joyous.

Q. Was that a hard decision to make? Was there a particular moment when you finally decided you had enough?

A. There was no situation in particular, I think it was just a building feeling of discontent and disquiet. Something in my head saying, “There has to be more to life.” I do remember distinctly sitting down with my boss, Kevin Roberts, in his hotel room, as he read the draft press release that I was going to become deputy chairman. He just looked at me and said, “You do realize what you’re doing here? This isn’t going to be easy, but I think you should do it. I think everybody should do it.” He even said to me he wished he’d done it when he was at PepsiCo.

I was just really looking forward to not having the weight of the world on my shoulders. But for the first year or so, it was a real readjustment. You don’t have queues of people outside your office door. You don’t have the trappings of power. You don’t have the overt authority to tell people what needs to be done by when. You have to earn it. Colleagues who’d been used to me in the CEO position changed the way they talked to me, thought about me, dealt with me. Then after a year or so, I think people realized that I could be of real value to them.

Q. What advice would you give to other leaders out there who are carrying that weight on their shoulders and thinking about ways they can unburden themselves and make a transition?

A. Life is short. A career, too, is relatively short. Everybody owes it to themselves, as the chief development officer of their own career, to make sure they operate from a position at which they’re good and effective, but also one which brings real energy to them and enthusiasm and passion.

My advice for the CEOs out there is: If you absolutely love the adrenaline of the action, if you adore the status, the power, the authority and that works for you, then thank you very much for serving. We need people like you. But if there’s a lurking, nagging doubt that this maybe isn’t in the best interest of the organization or that you need a different situation or fancy a new challenge, you shouldn’t be afraid to step aside and make a lateral move. The dispensation of wisdom and advice, and helping other people succeed in that CEO slot, is every bit as rewarding as being the person taking all the calls.

Q. What do you think is wrong with our culture these days that everyone feels like they should aim for the top spot?

A. The problem is a “winner takes all” popular culture, which really exacerbates the bias that the No. 2 spot is for also-rans and for losers. There’s also a continued emphasis on the idea of a single charismatic leader. We do need them — actually, never has there been a more important time to have good, accountable leaders — but that shouldn’t be at the expense of everyone else, without whom that leader simply couldn’t function.

Q. From having been in both spots, what have you learned about what makes for a great “second in command”?

A. Leadership, whether from the accountable position or the counseling position, has some standard qualities. If you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to have to be trusted. You have to ooze integrity. The distinctive characteristic of the second in command, though, is that they have probably a higher degree of emotional intelligence. They can read a room. They can read a situation. They can read people. They are able to influence and persuade without overt authority. They’re comfortable giving up and sacrificing recognition. And they really, really take pleasure in seeing other people succeed as well.

Q. Do you think it’s hard to recognize the value and enjoyment of having such a position until you’ve made it to the top and realize being No. 1 isn’t as glamorous or fun as you thought it would be?

A. I think people are getting fed up with the old hierarchy where everybody races to that one slot. Certainly for young people, they’re thinking, “This is just not worth it. I’m not going to go through all that pain. I’ve got adventures to be had. There are plenty of opportunities from which I can make a contribution.”

Data that we’ve collected at London Business School suggests that most young people are not prepared to stay at their current organization for more than five years. So I think, for them, there is abundant opportunity to demonstrate leadership from a multitude of second-in-command positions. I also spoke to some more mature leaders, and there are definitely a large number who either have been or still are first in command. And they relish that time when they can become a non-executive, when they can become a chairwoman, and pass on their wisdom.

Q. A lot of leadership literature and business school coursework is still geared toward that powerful CEO position. What do you think should change in the way we train and talk to young people about their career trajectories?

A. I once Googled “leadership” and got something like 61,000 search answers, and all of it is literature devoted to the No.1—how to get to the top, how to stay at the top. I’d love for the conversation about leadership to get reframed, so instead of exclusively focusing on the all-singing, all-dancing leader, we better understand the whole raft of other people who lead with that person. I’m looking for business schools to embrace this as a critical part of their teaching.

Q. I ask this question of many of our interviewees, and you can interpret it any way you want: What do you believe?

A. I believe that leadership is a privilege. I believe that really great leaders don’t get off on ridiculous amounts of singular power. And I think truly great leaders surround themselves with a diverse mix of advisers, supporters and deputies who can liberate them, educate them, make things happen for them. I also really, really believe that it’s time for a new kind of conversation around leadership that stops this ridiculous obsession of ours in popular culture about the lone, charismatic leader.

Q. What’s the single best piece of advice that you would doll out to others?

A. Be yourself, with more skill.

Read also:

Resigned: The fast fall of a Washington career

Christine Lagarde: 'Don't let the bastards get you'

Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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