What keeps business leaders awake at night?

What do C-suite leaders have in common across disciplines?

What new skills are required for leading businesses today?

In the summer and fall of 2016, Salesforce interviewed dozens of business leaders from around the world to discover the most pressing topics being discussed in the C-suite across industries. The dynamics of business change quickly and frequently, so we regularly conduct this sort of research to ensure we understand what concerns our customers the most, and how those needs and stress points change over time.

The executives we interviewed were all leaders of a sales, customer service, IT, or marketing department. They came from financial services, manufacturing, technology, retail, consumer packaged goods, professional services, hospitality, entertainment, and others industries. They represented companies as small as growing midsize businesses and as big as Fortune 500 companies.

Regardless of whether these executives were Salesforce customers or not, the interviews focused on the biggest issues and changes these executives faced, such as talent retention, change management, emerging competitors, and digital disruption.

We expected that each discipline (or line of business) would have common themes, but that those themes would vary from discipline to discipline. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised to find a significant amount of common ground between sales, service, marketing, and IT leaders. It seems that at the highest levels of business and the public sector, all leaders are thinking about similar challenges; it's just the way they address those challenges that vary by discipline.

Another commonality, the leaders all expressed an eagerness to learn what is on the minds of their peers. To that end, we have brought together some of those shared themes here.

The most important lesson we learned? There are new leadership skills required to be an executive today. It was clear from interviews that today’s leaders worry that the skills that led them to their current roles were not enough for continued success. It’s a matter of “yes, and …” Yes, the classic C-suite skills still matter: These executives must still be shrewd decision-makers, skillful politicians, charismatic leaders, and insightful business experts (among many other things). And now they must also develop additional new leadership skills required by today’s rapidly changing business landscape.

In a series of posts, we'll delve into each of the three skills that matter most to top executives. Here is the first. 

1. Confronting the danger of legacy attitudes

At Salesforce, we frequently address the problems that legacy technology — meaning old, possibly outdated infrastructure and systems — can create for businesses. In our interviews with top executives, we heard a lot about the equally significant problems that legacy attitudes can create.

New business models bring new management models.

All these executives discussed the market forces affecting their businesses. Many work in industries that are being disrupted — or are about to be. A few work at companies that are trying to be the disruptor. Even those that weren't grappling with disruption were there to seize an opportunity or solve a problem. Many of their organizations are exploring new business models.

One point called out by many is that with different overall business models come new business unit models. For example, service has to be reimagined when a company enters a new category, and sales has to change when a company reinvents the pricing strategy. These executives were given a mandate for change when they were given an executive role.

But change doesn't just come through new technologies; it comes through new corporate cultures.

The executives we interviewed said that one of the most important skills they've had to acquire is how to manage culture change: shifting people to new behaviors, habits, and ways of thinking. And one of the biggest barriers to change they encountered were fixed attitudes among employees and other leaders.

Executives related several common legacy attitudes:

  • “Sales knows the customer best so just do what sales asks.”

  • “IT is just there to keep the lights on; IT can't innovate.”

  • “Customers don't want that, they just want this.”

  • “The way we've always done things has gotten us this far.”

These attitudes prevent organizations from changing, and can lead an organization to obsolescence.

Extreme measures are required to address legacy attitudes.

The leaders told us they have, in some cases, taken extreme steps to combat these attitudes. Consider these representative examples:

Several CIOs resorted to “cleaning house” once they arrived in their new posts: they fired the top level of IT leadership that they inherited from their predecessors. It was harsh, but they decided it was necessary, since those IT lieutenants had reached that level by excelling at the status quo. And as it turned out, no one inside or outside their departments was surprised. These CIOs discovered that their inherited lieutenants had a perspective that didn't fit with and couldn't adjust to the new realities of IT and the business.

A VP of Sales and a VP of Service at a financial services company had to keep secret from their employees a project to better unite the data and processes shared between sales and service. They felt their subordinates would resist the change necessary to deliver a better experience to their high-value customers. In this case, they felt that legacy beliefs would prevent sales and service employees from seeing the potential in the new strategy unless that strategy was fully developed.

Other VPs of Service reported that they are now hiring their direct reports from outside their company. Service is a discipline that traditionally promotes from inside: Most service systems are unique with their own quirks and complications. Since service is a risk-averse discipline, it tends to prefer candidates who already know the system and processes. But many of these service executives said they are now looking to bring in leaders from the world's best service companies, because their own lieutenants are stuck with old mindsets that don't fit the new mandates for speed and experimentation.

One VP of Sales reported that when he arrived he implemented a new CRM system, but many of his sales leaders didn't adopt the technology. To change attitudes, he would literally walk out of sales meetings if his subordinates weren't using the CRM system to report their results. Only such extreme behavior could bring the change he needed, because partial adoption wasn't sufficient for the team to reach its goals.

Legacy attitudes determine adoption.

These are extreme examples, to be sure. But they all point to a perhaps underappreciated barrier that faces today's progressive business leaders: Innovative technology is only as good as the attitudes of the people using it.

In fact, managing these legacy attitudes is going to become an increasingly important factor in the success or failure of top executives. With the world changing at an accelerating pace, digital disruption is going to continue to affect one industry after another. Leaders at all levels are becoming (if they're not already) managers of continuous culture change.

The process of choosing and implementing a significant technology change is challenging. But it is, in fact, just the beginning of a long journey that these executives have all taken at some point. In a business environment where executives often use adoption to judge the ROI of new technology, the crucial part of the journey is actually reshaping the attitudes of employees and peers.

Interesting in reading more about what’s on the minds of business leaders? Email Evan Mager (emager@salesforce.com) to ask for the line-of-business white papers.

Evan Mager is Senior Director of Creative Strategy at Salesforce. The research featured here was led by Salesforce’s Customer & Market Insights team and conducted by the research firm Usability Sciences, in partnership with the Creative Strategy team.