Michelle has coached and trained leaders and teams for over 20 years. She is the founder of the Authentic Leadership Summit, the Emerging Executive Leadership Program and has served as a panelist for the World Coaching Conference. Michelle is a certified coach with ACC credentials from the International Coaching Federation, a MA in Leadership/Management and the author of three leadership books: Stand Out, Dare to Make a Difference, and Bottom Line. She is also a long-term thought-leadership contributor to several blogs/publications including: Forbes Coaches Council, Thought Leaders, Lead Change and Leadership Courseware.
Google “What does it take to be a successful CEO?” and you will find yourself with no lack of information, research, ideas and assumptions to answer this question. The challenge is you will also find that many of those answers contradict themselves. Some answers to this question are reflective of common stereotypes, such as: “charisma, extroverted personality, visionary, quick problem solver, Ivy League education, male, confident, etc.”.
The real question we should be asking, however, is: “Are the stereotypical traits of a CEO the true traits and characteristics that make for a successful CEO in 2020?” Recent research suggests there is not a “one-size-fits-all/cookie-cutter” mold for the perfect CEO.
The stereotypes that once defined the “ideal” candidate for many a Fortune 500 CEO positions do not hold true today (HBR, What Sets Successful CEOS Apart, May-June 2017 issue).
The good news is this: as we learn more about what it takes to be a successful CEO through empirical research, we shatter the stereotypes of what has, historically, defined an “ideal CEO,” and allow for a more diverse group of leaders to emerge.
Harvard Business Review embarked on a 10-year study (The CEO Genome Project) to identify the behaviors and traits of executives who either met or exceeded the expectations of their role.
According to research conducted by the Conference Board in the years 2000 – 2013, 25% of CEOs departing from their Fortune 500 positions left involuntarily. This lets us know the traits, characteristic and behaviors of leaders in those position were not effective. For example, although Boards and Investors are drawn to extraverts who are charismatic, research shows that introverts more regularly surpass expectations. Additionally, only 7% of high-performing CEOs in The CEO Genome Project Study had an Ivy League education and 8% did not even graduate from college!
And what about charisma?Surely a successful CEO must have charisma!? A new study suggests that too much charisma can actually be a bad thing for a business leader(“How much charisma does a leader need?” – Cosmos – The Science of Everything – May, 2017, Amy Middleton). Middleton found that medium levels of charisma are ideal for effective business leadership. Although charismatic leaders may be strong on vision and strategy, they often struggle with the operational side of things.
So, if stereotypical leadership traits like charisma and education don’t predict success, what does it to be a successful CEO? The following five traits and behaviors, according to research, are key:
According to the Psychology Today blog post, “What is Intuition and How to Use It”, Intuition is a person’s innate response/behavior. It is their “gut feeling”—ora hunch—that arises almost immediately in either mind or body (or both). The more a leader pays attention to this sensation, the more self-aware and, ultimately, self-managed they will be. According to Cholle, a familiarity and comfort with acting intuitively will help to bridge“the gap between the conscious and nonconscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason.”
Ultimately, leaders need to practice leveraging both reason and instinct to make fast and effective decisions. Some leaders are afraid to “go with their gut,” however, leaders do not need to let go of logic and reason to benefit from intuition. Successful leaders learn to embrace both.High-performing CEOs acknowledge that forging ahead without all the information means that mistakes will be made, but they have the ability to course-correct when necessary.
Remember, even amidst ambiguity, unfamiliar places and incomplete information, high performing CEOs are still able to make decisions. According to The CEO Genome Project, “decisive” CEOs were 12 times more likely to be “high performing.” Only 1/3rd of CEOs studied lost their jobs because they made poor decisions; the remaining 2/3rdlost positions due to being indecisive.
No matter what your business, if you are a leader, you are in the people business. Successful CEOs know how to and the importance of building a power-house team. Believe it or not, team building is not about investing energy into being liked. This statement may seem like a contradiction to the idea of being in the “people business,” but successful CEOs simply know being liked is not their top priority.
Additionally, successful CEOs know how to leverage people’s strengths and put the right players in the right places, because being a strong CEO is not just about having the strongest work ethic within the organization. According to The CEO Gnome Project, 100% of low-performing CEOs scored high on work ethic, but a successful leader cannot individually work themselves into that success… it takes a tribe!Research recognizes that getting the right people into the right places quickly and efficiently seems to be key to effective team building, (HBR, What Sets A Successful CEO Apart), so choose the right talent, put them in the right places, then let them do their jobs. Steve Jobs may have said it best: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Below are 9 additional tips for a CEO to take into consideration when empowering their team:
Reliability and consistency are vital elements to build trust, and, according to Patrick Lencioni, the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, trust is the foundation of a high-performance team. The CEO Genome Project noted that 94% of high performing CEOs scored high on consistency and follow-through on their commitments.
Consistency is demonstrated not only through meeting tangible commitments, but also through being emotionally self-aware and self-managed. This means knowing your strengths, challenges, what drains you, and what energizes you.
Self-awareness is a conscious knowledge of your own character, feelings, motives, desires, your strengths and your weaknesses. A leader can grow their self-awareness both formally and informally. Different approaches such as a 360 Feedback tool, human behavior assessments, and coaching are meaningful, formal options to become more self-aware.
Seeking out feedback, individual self-reflection and journaling are more informal ways to grow your self-awareness. Self-management, on the other hand, is putting into practice the management of physical and emotional self and your work based upon what you have learned through self-awareness.
One thing is certain: the more we learn, the more we realize what we do not know. It is great to have the natural ability or skill, and it is another thing to match that ability with learning.
About 30 years ago, Dr. Carol Dweck (Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University) and some of her colleagues began to study students’ attitudes regarding failure. From their research, they learned some students were able to rebound after failure, yet other students became “devastated by even the smallest setbacks” (https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/). After much research from thousands of children, Dr. Dweck authored the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe “the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence” (https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/).
Dr. Dweck learned that when a student believed they could learn, grow and “get smarter” they would take more effort to do so and put in the additional time to make it happen. This led to higher levels of achievement in these students. The same is true for successful CEOs. Those who embrace a growth mindset (even in the midst of what may initially be called “failure”) will also move to higher levels of achievement, just as the students did. CEOs who embrace learning and a growth mindset can “sense the need for change earlier and make strategic moves to take advantage of it (HBR, What Sets Successful CEOs Apart, 2017).
Unfortunately, organizational and planning skills are not the most exciting topics; however, these skills are quite valuable for the CEO to achieve success. Fortunately, there are a variety of tools, resources and technology to aid all leaders especially those who do not have a natural talent for structure.
When a CEO practices organization, they understand and stay focused on what is most important – rather than spreading themselves too thin. Organization allows the CEO’s mind to be free to focus on the bigger picture.
Hopefully these 5 leadership traits discussed in this article will help you be a successful leader.The last thought I want to share with you is that I don’t think there is a leader out there who is 100% at all of these traits 100% of the time… but hopefully they are being consistent in working to further develop these skills.
Remember, becoming a high performing CEO is a journey not a destination. I would love to hear your feedback and throughs on this article and what you think it takes to be a successful CEO.