I recently had lunch with a serial successful CEO (more than 1 successful company he led to significantly increased shareholder value). We talked about requirements for successful CEOs. I was curious, I wanted to hear his point of view. What was important to him. The CEO role is a lonely job, and he felt he needed to be comfortable with who he is, the decisions he makes, the board communications, and the results he was getting through his team as a reflection of his leadership capability. A few concepts surfaced: authenticity, generosity, level-headed behavior, developing and mentoring talent, focus, open communication, and highly developed emotional intelligence. It is important to understand that kindness is not synonymous with weakness and can be considered a competitive advantage. Let’s explore this concept further.
This CEO suggested strength in these key attributes helps him perform at his highest level and build trust and credibility with his team at every level. He suggested that at times, being nice means being firm, and keeping the team on track. It does not mean to acquiesce or defer or offend someone because they think differently. This CEO believes that it is nicer to be direct, to keep everyone on track, and focused on the right activities to drive the right results.
The CEO role is complex and requires many skills and diverse activities: raising money (public and private markets, or generating revenue), manage the Board communications and feedback, set strategic direction for the company, communicate goals to the team, manage the people to the company objectives, and set the tone for how work is accomplished. Every CEO is measured both by the results they get and how they manage their relationships at all levels.
There is some misconception that being an effective leader is to be difficult, abrasive, demanding or curt. However, the most effective CEOs are considerate, transparent, and firm. The more consistent and emotionally even the CEO is with communications, the more trust they build, and more is accomplished with their teams.
You are probably thinking, this sounds like a lot of soft skills, right? It is, being true to yourself is also important. Authenticity builds trust quickly at all levels. It is about possessing emotional intelligence and honing this skill over time, leading small teams, learning what does and does not work, and applying that learning to each assignment.
When assessing CEOs for clients, I want to know how they approach leading a team – both with an inherited team and one they choose. I want to know their capacity for mentoring and leading. Their tolerance for development and how they make hiring/ firing decisions. What their preferences are for building and leading teams, and working with the board (communication style, setting strategy, comfort with transparency, etc.). Understanding their approach is important to the selection committee on the board of directors, because hiring the RIGHT CEO is the most important job a board has. The Right CEO makes all the rest of the work of being on a board much easier. It is also critical to the success of the organization.
When we help clients find the right CEO we dig as much into understanding the candidate’s soft skills and abilities as we do the technical – we know leadership is an art as much as it is a science and getting the right fit is critical for our clients success.