This article shares the results of 10-year study, the CEO Genome Project. Its goal is to identify the specific attributes that differentiate high-performing CEOs.
Successful chief executives tend to demonstrate four behaviors that prove critical to their performance. When boards focus on those behaviors in their selection and development processes, they significantly increase their chances of hiring the right CEO. Research suggests that 87% of executives who aspire to the CEO’s office develop those behaviors.
The Four Behaviors
It’s rare for successful leaders to excel at all four behaviors. Roughly half of strong candidates earned an A overall on a scale of A, B, or C. Only 5% of the weak candidates (who earned a B or C) had distinguished themselves in more than one area.
The behaviors sound deceptively simple. But the key is to practice them with maniacal consistency, which is a great challenge for many leaders.
1. Speedy decision making:
High-performing CEOs stand out for being decisive, researchers say. They make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction. Executives can take too long to make decisions or set clear priorities, and their teams pay a high price. These smart but slow decision makers become bottlenecks, stalling the entire enterprise.
Decisive CEOs recognize that they can’t wait for perfect information. They solicit multiple points of view and poll a small, carefully cultivated “kitchen cabinet” of trusted advisers.
Successful CEOs also know when not to decide. Stephen Kaufman suggests pausing briefly to consider whether a decision should actually be made lower down in the organization and if delaying it a week or a month would allow important information to emerge without causing irreparable harm. But once a path is chosen, high-performing CEOs press ahead without wavering. An analysis suggests that while every CEO makes mistakes, most are not lethal.
2. Engaging for impact:
Strong CEOs balance keen insight with an unrelenting focus on delivering business results. They start by developing an astute understanding of their stakeholders’ needs and motivations. They then get people on board by driving for performance and aligning them around the goal of value creation. “With any big decision, I create a stakeholder map of the key people who need to be on board”. Madeline Bell, CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia shares her tips for effective communication.
Skilled CEOs instill confidence in their colleagues that they will lead the team to success. These CEOs do not shy away from conflict in the pursuit of business goals.
When tackling contentious issues, leaders who are good at engagement give everyone a voice but not a vote. They listen and solicit views but don’t default to consensus-driven decision making.
This doesn’t mean that CEOs should behave as autocrats or lone wolves. Typically, we see “take no prisoners” CEOs last only as long as the company has no choice but to submit to shock therapy.
These CEOs often get ousted as soon as the business emerges from crisis mode—they lose the support of their teams or of board members who’ve grown tired of the collateral damage.
3. Adapting proactively:
Dominic Barton, global managing partner of McKinsey & Company says, “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.”
Adaptable CEOs spend 50% of their time thinking about the long term, compared to 30% of other executives. Highly adaptable CEOs regularly plug into broad information flows, finding relevance in diverse sources of data. They sense change earlier and make strategic moves to take advantage of it. Adaptable CEOs are leaders who accept their mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. Aspiring CEOs with this attitude are more likely to make it to the top of the pyramid, according to a Harvard Catalyst study.
4. Being reliable:
Leaders ignore the importance of reliability at their peril. Reliable CEOs resist the temptation to jump into execution mode. They dig into budgets and plans, and engage with board members, employees, and customers to understand expectations.
CEOs who ranked high on reliability employed several other tactics as well. Three-quarters of them were rated strong on organization and planning skills. They established business management systems that included dashboards and clear accountability. Most important, they surrounded themselves with strong teams to make rapid course corrections.
Often CEOs fail to get the right team in place quickly enough. The successful ones move decisively to upgrade talent. They set a high bar and focus on performance relevant to the role rather than personal comfort or loyalty. This leads to bad calls that often lead to firings and promotions.
Leadership success is not a function of unalterable traits or unattainable pedigree, but rather four key ingredients: decisiveness, the ability to engage stakeholders, adaptability, and reliability. Focusing on these essential behaviors will improve both a board’s likelihood of choosing the right CEO and individual leader’s chances of succeeding. 100% of low-performing CEOs scored high on integrity, and 97% score high on work ethic.
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