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What does the successful CEO profile look like? In a recent article by The Harvard Business Review, they noted a fundamental disconnect between board members’ perceptions of what constitutes a successful CEO and the true indicators that more practically result in success. Consider the typical stereotype: a 6-foot-tall, white, extroverted man with a degree from an Ivy-league university and a strategic, visionary approach that never fails. But HBR’s 10-year study, the CEO Genome Project, is finding that perception to be a fallacy when studying the truly successful CEOs.
Indeed, the more successful CEOs are more likely to be introverts. The vast majority (93%) did not go to an Ivy-League school and 7% have no college background at all. 45% have at one time experienced a major career blow-up. A high level of confidence, so impressive to boards during candidate searches, actually provides no advantage once on the job.
So, what should those boards be looking for? HBR’s study identified 4 key behaviors that truly indicate success for a CEO. Now, an individual displaying all 4 would be as rare as a unicorn. But find 2 or 3 and you’d have a candidate worth careful consideration.
Says HBR, “High-performing CEOs understand that a wrong decision is often better than no decision at all.” And a high IQ often works against a CEO on this point. Those who relish the intellectual debate and the tracking down of every key bit of knowledge can often miss the boat. “Once I have 65% certainty around the answer, I have to make a call,” says Jerry Bowe, CEO of the private-label manufacturer Vi-Jon.
Successful CEOs may debate a decision with their team, not necessarily to find the answer but to create engagement. Hence, the 2nd indicator:
Successful CEOs excel at bringing others along in their planning and making them a part of the “win.” Madeline Bell, CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says, “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….But at the end of the day, you have to be clear that you’re making the call and you expect them on board.”
A CEO who is unafraid to wade into conflict, give everyone a voice (but not a vote), handle diverging viewpoints, and then move his team forward together under his final decision will find more success than the autocratic, “lone wolf” CEO.
“Most CEOs know they have to divide their attention among short-, medium-, and long-term perspectives,” says HBR, “but the adaptable CEOs spent significantly more of their time—as much as 50%—thinking about the long term.” They understand the importance of plugging into whatever outlets will keep them current, in their industry and globally. They sense change earlier and devise long-term strategies accordingly.
Planning is important, but no one can foresee everything. Effective CEOs are not surprised by a setback and adapt their plans as needed. They tweak their approach and try to do better. That blow-up at their former company doesn’t have to be a career derailer—it can, in fact, enhance it.
Successful CEOs know how to deliver the expected results—not just once, but over the long haul. And they know that good organization, of processes as well as strong talent in top positions, is key to that goal. “A key practice here is setting realistic expectations up front. In their first weeks on the job, reliable CEOs resist the temptation to jump into execution mode….they rapidly assess the business to develop their own point of view on what’s realistic and work to align expectations with that.”
They move quickly to upgrade their talent and they don’t play favorites. A track record with a focus on performance is key here, rather than loyalty, who feels comfortable, or who will be most accepted by others.
What about those other important qualities, like integrity or work ethic? While critical at the first-level, screening phase, they are not shown to be decisive indicators of success on the job, and should become less important as the vetting process progresses.
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