A recent article in Harvard Business Review (HBR), entitled “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart” by Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell, Stephen Kincaid, and Dina Wang discussed behaviors of successful leaders.
The authors engaged in “a 10-year study, the CEO Genome Project. Its goal is to identify the specific attributes that differentiate high-performing CEOs (whom we define as executives meeting or exceeding expectations in the role, according to interviews with board members and majority investors deeply familiar with the CEOs’ performance).”
They reviewed information to distinguish candidates who got hired as CEOs from those who did not and those who excelled in the role from those who underperformed.
There were four specific behaviors that they believe make for high-performing Chief Executive Officers (CEOs). This also means you can model your behavior towards these standards. Finally, if you feel you are deficient in any of these areas, you can take leadership classes to help development some of these traits.
Deciding with Speed and Conviction
Great CEOs stand out not for being all-knowing and all-seeing but for being decisive. The authors noted, “They make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction. They do so consistently—even amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains.” Interestingly, overly intellectual CEO types tend to go the opposite direction, being too deliberative and becoming bottlenecks for their organizations. A key consideration for any CEO is that there is never perfection or 100% information. Legally trained in-house lawyer types usually wait for more information before giving an opinion and the type of deliberation well-suited to a law department does not translate well outside a legal function.
Engaging for Impact
The role of any leader should be engagement, engagement and then more engagement. By understanding the needs of your key stakeholders and incorporating that into your solution or initiative you will have your team on board and ready to move forward. The authors quoted Madeline Bell, CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia “With any big decision, I create a stakeholder map of the key people who need to be on board. I identify the detractors and their concerns, and then I think about how I can take the energy that they might put into resistance and channel it into something positive. I make it clear to people that they’re important to the process and they’ll be part of a win.”
If there is one constant in business it is change. The authors found this to be a key indicia of a successful business leader. They cited to Dominic Barton, global managing partner of McKinsey & Company, who said, “It’s dealing with situations that are not in the playbook. As a CEO you are constantly faced with situations where a playbook simply cannot exist. You’d better be ready to adapt.” Adaptability also means engaging in long-term strategy planning. By having a long-term focus, you can pick up on changes more quickly. You should also use a wide variety of tools to input data.
Jay Martin, CCO at Baker-Hughes Inc., continually reminds us that business is about execution. The same is true for leadership. The authors found that the mundanity of reliability was a key indicia of success. Stakeholders want a steady hand and predictability. Even if you have stunning results, the authors found that Boards of Directors preferred a steady hand rather than huge results which may not be duplicated. Of course, setting realistic expectations are important but you must consistently follow through on your commitments. The bottom line is that no one in the corporate world wants surprises; certainly not negative surprises but there is even unease if a positive surprise is too great.
The authors conclude by writing, “leadership success is not a function of unalterable traits or unattainable pedigree. Nor is there anything exotic about the key ingredients: decisiveness, the ability to engage stakeholders, adaptability, and reliability. “While there is certainly no “one size fits all” approach, focusing on these essential behaviors will improve both a board’s likelihood of choosing the right CEO – and an individual leader’s chances of succeeding in the role.” The same is true for a CEO and if you would like to hold such a position one day, you should work towards incorporating these traits into your behaviors.