What makes a great CEO?

Posted by Robert Beauchemin on Mar 18, 2008

Let's start with the premise that CEOs are not all equal.

Like in any population, the population of CEOs is grouped according a standard Bell Curve. 2% are exceptionally good, 14% are good, 68% are average, 14% are not good, and 2% are exceptionally bad.

What gives an extra edge for a CEO?

I submit it is a broad base of experiences.

You are looking for a CEO that has successfully acted in multiple industries and varying types of organizations, and doing so, has developed different sets of muscles.

He/she has experienced selling fewer larger ($10M+) transactions as well as smaller and high volume transactions.
He/she worked in complex (Outsourcing/ERP/Engineering) solutions, or simple over-the-counter consumer transactions.
He/she dealt with sophisticated customers (Governments/Corporate America) and sold over the web, where there is hardly any interaction.
He/she ran organizations operating with 80% gross margin and 25% EBITDA and in those with 25% Gross Margin and 10% EBITDA.

You want the same CEO to have also run companies in different geographies, against different political backdrops.
He/she has also lead a start-up company, did turnarounds and sat atop a large corporation.
And he/she has run a subsidiary for an American as well as for a European company.

You want someone who has lived through fast growth, but also knows what it feels like to fire 25% of the staff, or to take a company out of stagnation.
You want some who has run both a private and a public company.
And yes, you want someone who has come very close to missing payroll.

Evidently, no single CEO has all of that. And if you ever find one with all that experience, he/she has to be what Jim Collins calls a Level-5 Executive. Someone who has built enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.

So may be, hiring someone from the industry is not all that great after all. Someone who knows that success is always shared with the executive team, and failures never can be. So where do you find someone like this? Not necessarily in your industry!