What makes a great CEO? Or NOT!

Karen FenaroliArticles, Views

As a leader and an executive, it’s natural to have self-doubt. If you’re not constantly evaluating your own potential and skills, you’re limiting your opportunity for success (and you may be a narcissist). Therefore, thinking introspectively about things like “what makes a great CEO?” is important. On the heels of evaluating such a critical question, I suggest you examine this follow-up: What causes a CEO to fail?

In my experience as the CEO of a national executive search firm, and one who has conducted thousands of C-Suite interviews, there are five key elements (or “watch-outs”) to consider as a leader builds a credible CEO pathway.

First, watch out for a lack of vision. Without thinking about the big picture, pushing the envelope and innovating a better future, you might as well simply step aside.

As Warren Bennis said, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Great leadership requires a CEO to make the time to define a clear vision. The practice of visioning involves utilizing many tools – off-sites, consultants, workshops, trending exercises, strategic accelerators, change management, multi-generational inclusion, people-cascades, idea exchanges. In fact, the practice of being a visionary is a daily and hourly exercise for a CEO. The most captivating and commanding CEOs master it and use it as a catalyst for success.

Second, watch out for a lack of ethics. Lying, cheating, dishonesty, blaming and a number of old-school short-cuts are a great way to get you to a deserving outcome … like getting fired.

We live in a time when people demand truth and transparency, as evidenced by everything from organic foods to sustainability efforts to the rise of millennial leaders who’ve grown up sharing intimate details of their personal lives through social media. In his article 5 Powerful Things Happen When A Leader Is Transparent, Glenn Llopis writes, “Being transparent is a powerful thing, if you can trust yourself and be trusted by others. The reason most leaders are not transparent is because they believe they will be viewed as less authoritative; that the credentials they worked so hard to attain will lose their power, leverage and gravitas.” The reality is companies that are winning have determined how to separate true ethical leaders from the rats.

Third, watch out for a lack of quality decision making. Bad leaders are an accumulation of poor judgment and a pile of broken decisions, and stakeholders can sniff that out from miles away.

The sign of a great CEO is her/his decision-making process. Tony Robbins summarizes it perfectly: “It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped.” A thoughtful decision-making process may include root cause thinking, acute listening, amassing diverse opinions, risk-processing and positive mindsets on the value of failure, among other quality attributes. Avoid stagnation and set-backs; set yourself up for success in decision-making with practice, practice, practice.

Fourth, watch out for ignoring the employee mindset. By alienating those who support you in executing your vision and helping make it a reality, you’re setting yourself up to live on an island … and out of a job.

In her book How to Get More Engaged at Work and Start Liking Your Job, author Laura Garnett states, “Loving work is seen as an ideal that few can achieve, but those who do are the ones who have truly won the lottery of life.” We are in a highly interactive and socially close era of history, and employees are an integral part of our lives as CEOs. To extract the very best from your workforce, set your ego aside and engage with all ranks of employees; be more emotionally honest; listen and mentor more; champion fun work environments; and set an example of a positive work-life balance and integration. By gaining perspective, you can in turn deliver an environment for your employees in which they can love the work they do.

Finally, watch out for the resistance to innovate and change. If you’re not taking calculated risks and thinking outside of the box (or creating a totally new box), someone more successful will.

Creativity and adaptability are essential in a world where technology and innovation move at the speed of light. And here’s where Clay Christensen and I agree in his book The Inventor’s Dilemma: “There are direct paths to a successful career. But there are plenty of indirect paths, too.” These indirect paths are peppered with stretch assignments in global locations, new business units that fail or succeed, promotions and layoffs, new acquisitions and the divestures that are overdue. To succeed, CEOs must lead by creative example, have an attitude of consistent iteration and curiosity, and champion the unfamiliar path.

Being a great leader is exhausting. And that’s what your comfortable chair at home is for … for settling into at the end of a very long CEO day full of challenges that push you to your limits. In those moments, you’ll clearly see that, as a great CEO, you will find accomplishment in being a visionary, taking the high road, engaging your employees immensely, making decisions bravely, and pursuing creativity that is ahead of the curve.

Are you a great CEO? Or not?