Personal Characteristics of a Great CEO

Posted by Robert Beauchemin on Apr 23, 2008

In a previous post I talked about what would make a Great CEO and concluded that a Great CEOs, those in the top 2% of the Bell Curve, would have had a broad experience. Well, there is more to it than just a broad experience. A Great CEO for me has some personal characteristics uncommon on many people. I know that, as a CEO, I was certainly conscious about improving these aspects of my personality. So here are the top characteristics I would consider an exceptional combination:

Stamina – Not age. Ideally your looking for someone in its 50's with the energy of a 35 year-old go-doer. The job of a CEO is very demanding, meeting challenges after challenges, analyzing situations, making decisions, aligning all staff towards common goals, traveling, and keeping the family happy in the process. The CEO regularly clocks in 12 hour days, often working 6-7 days a week. This is not a job for the faint of heart.

Educated – Not Necessarily Formally. MBA maybe, well read for sure. The CEO needs to stay current on the stock markets and on industries, on leadership, on people management, on marketing, on technology, on performance management, on micro economics and macro economics. The CEO must have an insatiable thrust for learning. The worst CEOs know it all from the get-go.

Visioning – Balancing Reality and Execution. There is no future without a strong present, that's a given. Yet, the CEO must have very clear idea as to where he/she is taking the organization, not this quarter nor this fiscal years, but in some distant future. He/she must be able to articulate a very compelling image of what I call the Envisioned Future and to articulate the several stratagems that will be deployed to ensure the vision will be met. The Envisioned Future and the stratagems must be anchored into a reality, that itself generates a sense of urgency, a need to change and a desire to move forward. The CEO must also focus on the immediate imperatives on the journey to the Envisioned Future. It is this ability of a CEO to go from 30,000 feet (seeing the future, the big picture and the strategic plan) to the street level (selling and executing) and back up to 30,000 feet that keeps the organization moving forward on their tracks.

Listening – Really Listening. Listening for what is said, and what is not. Listening to the vibes. Listening to the atmosphere. It is by listening that the CEO can fully appreciate the challenges experienced by the organization, the divisions, the individuals, the competitors. Listening to what is not said is just has important. When a competitor fails to announce any wins for several months, after announcing wins every month before, speaks a lot. Employees that leave for other opportunities, say a lot if you care to listen.

An eye for talent – First Who. As Jim Collins says "First Who then What". The best CEOs surround themselves with right people, with the right personalities, and put them in the right seats. This way, the efforts are not spent on moving people forward, but are expended moving the company forward.

Passion – Adhocracy Not Autocracy. Great leaders do not tell what to do; they communicate their passion for the end result, for the ways to get there, for how to behave. They are charismatic, but not in the flamboyant sense. It is their passion that people fall in love with. Their passion is infectious and allows them to sell their vision, to communicate pride of accomplishments or learning in failures. Passion is paramount for creating a sense of urgency. It allows what would seemingly be ad-hoc decision making to be I perfect alignment with expected outcome.

Discipline – Not Hopes. "We're not sure", "I hope", "we expect", "may be" are not favoured terms; instead they would prefer "we plan to …", "we are doing …", "we'll be done by …" and "we're done". Hope is not a strategy and MBH (Management by Hope) is not a discipline. A great CEO is looking to empower the organization while establishing clear empowerment fences imbedded in plans, structures and processes. A great CEO declares a culture of discipline and accountability.

Communications – Walking The Talk. Yes, walking the talk is communicating. Certainly, the CEO has to communicate with great coherency, consistency, relevancy and frequency. But the magic occurs by looking at how one behaves. Nothing is worse than a CEO that says one thing and does otherwise.

Follow through – Controls are important. Great CEO's are "control freaks"; but not in the pejorative sense of the term. He/she does not want to be in control of everything; he/she wants everyone in control. Because lose-ends are biologically unacceptable, a great CEO will follow through on commitments made, to/by him/her.

Technical, Selling and Leadership – in one suit. Credibility obliges. The perfect CEO grew through the technical ranks (regardless of the industry), developing a set of muscles necessary to sense when the offerings are aiming right. The perfect CEO gets that there is more to selling than picking up orders. He knows to be directly involved in the revenue generation process. For Great CEOs, Selling Strategically means going at it with method and discipline. The perfect CEO gets what leadership is about. He/she has to know that, despite the years of experience, he/she is the prime conductor and that others are needed on the bus to deliver the results.

Controlled Emotions – Not Faked Emotions. Yes a great CEO is a person of passion, but controlled passion. Sometimes parked for greater impact, other times wearing emotions on his/her sleeves for greater impact, the Great CEO will control the display of emotions to achieve the expected outcome. Do not confuse this trait with faking emotions, because it is not; it is calibrating the outburst of genuine emotions for the right reasons.

Adaptability – or the Board will take care of that. It is often said that a specific CEO can only take the company from A to B, and that another one will be necessary to take the organization from B to C. In an ideal world, that won't be the case, because the CEO can learn and adapt at a faster pace than will be needed.

Level 5 Leadership – Not Big Ego. CEOs that can build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will is what Jim Collins calls Level 5 Executives. CEOs are rarely directly responsible for success, but are always directly responsible for failures. Great CEOs use the word "we" with "successes" and "I" with "failures".

Ethics – Taken For Granted. Visibly always walking the high road, from the mundane to the real serious stuff. Much like with children, your staff will imitate what you do, not do what you say.

Of course, an experienced and successful CEO would have all of the personal characteristics above, so let's focus on the CEO's experience. Right? Well not really. The reasons CEOs have been successful are numerous and varied – hence the hundreds of books on the subject. Knowing why they were successful is more important, ensuring they were successful by exercising the traits above, and not by some series of coincidences, would be reassuring to me.