What Sets Successful CEOs Apart

At the top of the ladder, the stakes are high and the demands intense. The chief executive’s role is a tough one to fill. Too many CEOs falter at the job; about a quarter of the Fortune 500 chiefs who leave firms each year are forced out. Clearly, boards do not always get their hires right.

The HBR article ‘What Sets Successful CEOs Apart’ from the ‘May 2017’ Issue talks about this in detail

In an in-depth analysis, conducted for 17,000 executives, the authors Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell, Stephen Kincaid and Dina Wang uncovered a large disconnect between what directors think makes for an ideal CEO and what actually leads to high performance at that position.

The findings of their 10-year research project ‘the CEO Genome Project‘ challenge many widely held assumptions. It turns out Charisma, confidence, and pedigree all have little bearing on CEO success.

Instead, top performers demonstrate four specific business behaviors:

  1. Deciding with speed and conviction: They’re decisive, realizing they can’t wait for perfect information and that a wrong decision is often better than no decision.
  2. Engaging for impact: They engage for impact, working to understand the priorities of stakeholders and then aligning these around the goal of value creation.
  3. Adapting proactively: They adapt proactively, keeping an eye on the long term, treating mistakes as learning opportunities.
  4. Delivering reliably: They deliver results in a reliable fashion, steadily following through on commitments.

However, there’s no perfect mix of the four behaviors that would work for every CEO position. The industry and the company context determine which behaviors and skills are most important in a particular situation. A CEO in a rapidly evolving industry—for example, technology—will surely need to excel in adapting proactively, but that behavior may matter less in more stable sectors.

One might wonder, what about integrity and other ‘table stake’ qualities? Those are critical in screening out clearly unsuitable candidates, but they will not help you separate out the best from the rest. Consider this 100% of low-performing CEOs in the research sample scored high on integrity, and 97% scored high on work ethic.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, believes, leadership success is not a function of unalterable traits or unattainable pedigree. Nor is there anything out of the ordinary about the key ingredients: decisiveness, ability to engage stakeholders, adaptability, or reliability. While there is certainly no ‘one size fits all’ approach, focusing on these essential behaviors will improve both a board’s likelihood of choosing the right CEO—and the individual leader’s chances of succeeding in the role of CEO of the organization.

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