The CEO as Catalyst, Not Controller

In this guest spotlight, Ita Murphy, CEO of SYZYGY, discusses what it takes to lead a thriving company from the highest function within the business. The key is to act as catalyst, not controller!

The role of CEO and styles of business leadership are constantly changing. Having come up through the ranks, back when most models and business figureheads were men of a certain age and all cut from a very similar cloth, this variety is welcomed. We know that business can flounder when you stay still. Leadership is very similar, and what the next generations of employees and colleagues expect from their business heads is quite rightly, more demanding than ever.

This pace of change within most industries will not slow, which is why leaders within them have to keep evolving. The sheer number of digital developments businesses must not only navigate but harness, mean that being multiskilled is now more useful than being a siloed expert in one topic. The same goes for the CEO. Modern leaders know when to get out of the way of their teams. They recognise that good leadership often acts to serve the staff, rather than the other way around. Listening, coaching, mentoring, and collaboration have become central to the modern, progressive CEO position, and have rarely been more important to driving business resilience.

With the massive changes over the past year and a half, CEOs need to lead the way with workplace culture – they are not just the figureheads of the company. Employees are seeking more flexible, creative roles where they are free to innovate rather than restricted to the narrow confines of a defined role. To deal with these developments, the CEO’s role to provide the workforce with the best possible environment in which to flourish. Focusing on an individual’s outputs, rather than when or where they work, is required if we are to get the best from people and provide a place where talented individuals want to stay for the long term.

It is critical in modern workplaces for the CEO to nurture trust with the team, rather than the other way around where staff felt pressured to demonstrate their loyalty to the CEO. This means a shift away from measuring value in terms of hours spent, and rewarding what’s really important, the ideas and the work.

Ita Murphy,

Headshot Ita Murphy CEO SYZYGY

For example, recognising that creative thinking is more likely to occur when out on a walk in the countryside rather than when tied to a desk. In my experience, I found removing the presence of any presenteeism culture in the workplace has reaped huge rewards. It is critical in modern workplaces for the CEO to nurture trust with the team, rather than the other way around where staff felt pressured to demonstrate their loyalty to the CEO. This means a shift away from measuring value in terms of hours spent, and rewarding what’s really important, the ideas and the work.

Maintaining a culture where people are empowered to be adaptable and which offers room for them to develop is key in this environment, where people are motivated by businesses which align with their goals and show value in return. Demonstrating that inherent trust in teams rather than micromanaging is an essential part of my day-to-day work. To make it work you have to show trust and managing those relationships is part of the fabric of the business culture.

Here are some strategies to keep the modern CEO adaptive, and make the workplace a more collaborative place:

Mind Your Language
People can’t think creatively if they are frightened. The role of a business leader is to make people feel psychologically safe, only then can they think creatively to explore, to be brave enough to try new ideas. A leader’s role is to support people to think beyond the obvious. If we blame people for trying (and failing), then they will stick to the ‘tried & tested’. It’s all too easy to blame people for not winning a pitch or delighting a client at a key meeting. Sadly in my experience, often the most senior person blames the team for failing, but it’s at these moments when a true leader should accept responsibility. It’s when the team are at their lowest that they should lift them up, dust them down and make them feel brave (and safe) enough to go for it next time. What you say and how you say it when the team are at their lowest ebb marks you out as a true leader. Anyone can blame, only true leaders can build.

Fail Upward
Rather than saying “we’re failing”, say we are “learning”. This is the central premise of Matthew Syed’s book ‘Bounce’. The very best athletes are those who don’t see a mistake as a mistake, or a failure as a failure – they see it as a lesson of what to do next time. The same rule applies to playing music, writing a story, or pitching for work. Let people find their own way to a successful outcome. When giving briefs, try describing the ideal end result, but let individual team members find their own way to reach it. By setting guide rails rather than a step-by-step prescriptive process, new ways of solving challenges will be found. If we lose a pitch, we try to approach these instances now as opportunities to learn. What could we be doing better?

Ask, Don’t Tell
The purpose of the CEO is to identify and remove friction points whilst also strengthening and future-proofing the company into a more sustainable business. Working for a leader who ‘knows all the answers’ isn’t motivating. Enabling people to make smart decisions helps teams to shape their own journey to that destination. This unleashes their talent to progress, creates a feeling of entrepreneurial freedom, and moves the team to collective success.

We, Not Me
Leadership is about collaboration. Make it all about results and the team shining, together. Actively leading through a more employee-first approach creates leaders throughout the organisation. It gives everyone a sense of ownership over success since their contributions have been recognised. As a leader it’s important to get involved in the process, roll your sleeves up. Be part of the solution. It’s no longer good enough to brief people and walk away. Find the balance between empowering people and leading them by being there to engage with the challenges any project has. Employees respond to leaders who show the skills they have, are prepared to get stuck in , and have the capacity to listen and learn from the rest of the team. It’s the best way to show everyone what a good team member looks like.

The old ways of command and control leadership should soon be phased out by natural selection. Future leaders now emerging will have a mindset that is a product of how they see the world and the leadership they’ve encountered. Creating a more empowered, challenging and curious workforce is ultimately what drives me to be the best leader I can be.

Continual disruption is now the business baseline, and a leader who can rapidly respond with humility to new obstacles and react with appropriate solutions and support will thrive, as new challenges and opportunities constantly arrive. Empowering teams as much as possible is critical – if they succeed, so will the business.


Ita Murphy

Ita has over 25 years of experience in the communication industry. She was Managing Director at Mindshare from 2000 until 2012 and during this time oversaw significant growth at the agency, running new business operations and leading a wholesale digital transformation programme. Ita has also held brand-side roles, having been Client Strategy Director at News UK, and prior to joining SYZYGY she was Head of Media at Lloyds Banking Group, where she managed its £80million+ media spend. Ita was also president of WACL in 2007/8. She is now leading the transformation of SYZYGY into a specialist digital agency that future-proofs clients’ business at speed.