For the next generation of star CEOs, experience alone isn’t enough. Here’s what they need to reach the top rung
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For the next generation of star CEOs, experience alone isn’t enough. Here’s what they need to reach the top rung

Oct 05, 2023

In a fast-changing world profoundly transformed by the pandemic and the blistering advance of technology, a world in which the past offers ever less guidance, the CEO's job is being reconceived.

For the star CEOs of the 21st century, success will depend heavily on their ability to confront a pair of almost contradictory requirements: They must plumb their deepest humanity, and they must foresee technology's greatest opportunities and threats. Mastering either challenge is difficult. Mastering both is extraordinary—but then, that's what CEOs are supposed to be.

"What matters for the role now is more about the intrinsics, the intangibles, and less about specific experience," says Cathy Anterasian, a CEO succession expert at the Spencer Stuart leadership consulting firm. Indeed, Anterasian cites the firm's research showing that high-potential first-time CEOs who "don't have that baggage" tend to outperform those with many years of experience, delivering higher market-adjusted total shareholder return and lower volatility. Alan Johnson, a compensation consultant, agrees: "If you’ve got 30 years of experience, probably the first 20 are not relevant anymore."

Who will take the reins in this new landscape? With the help of executive search veterans and industry experts (who asked not to be named so as not to show favoritism), Fortune has identified 11 CEO stars in the making—many of them already in the C-suite, and all potential large-company CEOs.

Read more: Future Fortune 500 CEOs: 11 up-and-comers that leadership experts see as generational standout bosses

The dual challenges of thriving in a rapidly changing technology landscape and running workplaces where the norms and expectations have shifted dramatically are inevitably intertwined. The tech challenge has attracted the most attention lately as the sudden efflorescence of generative A.I. tools bends minds and, for some CEOs, induces panic.

As Moore's law made clear, doubling computing power every two years or so has already profoundly changed the world. Now A.I. engines are doubling their capabilities every few months. Humans can't comprehend such galloping change, yet CEOs must respond to it.

To do so they needn't be computer scientists or former coders, except at companies that create technology. Most boards aren't looking for technology wizards as CEOs. What they want is "tech savvy," says Spencer Stuart's Jim Citrin: "I see it among the next generation," he says. "They grew up digitally and have it a little bit more instinctively." Rather than tech brilliance, says Jane Stevenson, who oversees the global CEO succession practice at Korn Ferry, "boards are looking for understanding of technology and change relative to the ways business is being done."

Tech-savvy or not, all CEOs must now make portentous decisions that include vast tech elements they may not fully understand. Which brings us to the other central challenge for tomorrow's leaders: "What will differentiate the great CEOs will rest with their humility and their ability to empower an ecosystem of talent and expertise around them," says Anterasian. "You can't know everything now." And arrogance doesn't play as well as it used to, says Jeffrey Sanders, a top succession expert at Heidrick & Struggles. Tomorrow's successful CEOs "don't feel like they have to be the smartest person in every room," he says.

The demise of the myth of the invincible CEO was underway for years before the pandemic completed it.

"The pandemic unleashed or perhaps even made more important the humanity in leadership and the need to connect with people," said Laxman Narasimhan, who was CEO of Reckitt Benckiser during the pandemic, when he made this observation to Fortune, and is now Starbucks’ CEO. "I found the magic in an organization is about being super down-to-earth about who you are and letting people see you for who you are, with all the flaws and vulnerabilities you face."

The journey starts with humility, which is not the first word that comes to mind when you think of CEOs.

"Humility is one of the most common themes that comes up in my work with clients these days, especially CEOs and C-suite leaders," says Jeff Hull, executive director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean/Harvard Medical School. "It's quite challenging for many of these folks."

That is because most CEOs have strong egos, which they need to withstand stock market volatility, harsh media coverage, inevitable conflict in the organization, and bad news that lands on their desks.

"I found the magic in an organization is about being super down-to-earth about who you are … with all the flaws and vulnerabilities you face."

Many boards and headhunters now evaluate CEO candidates’ self-awareness by administering tests that calculate scores for that quality. It's worth gauging because it reflects CEOs’ ability to consider how others perceive them, which in turn prompts them to ask whether those perceptions align with reality. This process is a path to authenticity, another attribute boards increasingly prize.

In earlier generations, leaders may have felt they had to put up a front of impervious strength, but today candidates who let their guards down will find they’ve given up nothing.

"Authenticity, humility, being more fully human—they’re ironically showing up for many leaders as a strength, not a weakness," says Hull. "They actually gain respect and connection, and people want to follow them."

None of this comes easy. Being candid, humble, and vulnerable in a high-profile, high-stress job is hard. But it's necessary when you acknowledge that foreseeing what A.I.-juiced technology will do five years from now is impossible.

Meanwhile, the demands of the job keep intensifying. "It's a meat grinder," says Stevenson, echoing many others. Search firms have noticed a new trend: an increase in CEO candidates who don't want the job if it means giving up too much personally.

"If you could make $5 million a year for the next five years as a CFO instead of $15 million for the next five years—yes, there's an absolute difference," says Dick Patton, a CEO succession expert at the Egon Zehnder leadership advisory firm. "But it isn't so bad, making $5 million for five years, right? And people are starting to think more like that than they were before."

Certainly lots of executives still burn with ambition. But which ones will succeed? It's often said that nobody is fully prepared to be U.S. president, and the same is true of new CEOs. Those of our 11 candidates who eventually become CEOs will face stark new realities for which no one could be prepared.

For them and for all future CEOs, success will hinge less on skills and more on personal traits—less on what they once knew, and more on who they are now.

A version of this article appears in the June/July 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline, "The new right stuff: And 11 future CEOs who have it."