If you were to narrow down the ideal qualities of a CEO to five items, what would you choose to include? Many would consider leadership, confidence or communication: these are certainly important CEO qualifications. But, do they make a good CEO? Maybe not: for example, according to research published in Harvard Business Review, confidence will make a CEO twice as likely to get hired, but it doesn’t seem to impact how well they do the job.
Conversely, a good CEO is someone who’s capable of juggling several critical duties and also remain trusted and respected decision-makers by others – particularly his or her colleagues and employees. To do this, and sustain it, you need to possess or build those less-than-tangible characteristics.
So, if you intend to become a good CEO, or if you’re trying to get even better at your job as the first in command, develop these five important skills.
Here are 5 qualities of a CEO:
Foresight means having critical thinking when it comes to future planning and possibilities. It’s a characteristic that’s useful to all of us in our work and personal lives. But, for CEOs especially, it’s twice as important. You’re dealing with a lot of money, investors and business activities – usually all at once – and you’re also responsible for steering the company in the right direction. Having the ability to forecast what could happen in a few months or even years from now, and prepare for the possible outcomes, is one of the most invaluable characteristics of a CEO.
And of course, sometimes, it’s about making the right decision, even if it’s counterintuitive. For example, Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke (recent controversy aside) made a smart move in deciding to consciously slow Shopify’s growth in order to keep it manageable for him.
So, in order to have better foresight:
- Think outside of the box. Sometimes, a solution is unexpected or you can reach a solution in a different way than you anticipated. Don’t rule out any course of action unless it’s truly non-feasible.
- Spend time to weigh the pros and cons of each decision. Speedy decision-making is often praised in the workplace, but what’s more important is to slow down every once in a while and make sure you’ve considered every scenario for the longer-term success of the business.
- Keep abreast of developments. With so many things going on in your company and the market, it’s easy to focus on some areas, and neglect others. Find a system that allows you to monitor various changes and leave some time in your calendar just for reading and learning about various topics and news.
Think of the story of Blockbuster, a once fast-growing, international company worth billions that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010. Despite its CEO John Antioco making some efforts to change the business model and compete with growing threats such as Netflix and Redbox, BlockBuster as a company (and its subsequent leadership) was slow to adapt and never adjusted its established methods of making money.
This isn’t just a lesson in adapting to changing markets or, in this case, the digital revolution. It’s also a matter of adapting to the circumstances around you, i.e. the frustration of board members about declining revenue, the controversies or the conflicts that may appear occasionally, and more. You need to adapt your strategy to ensure buy-in from the right people at the right time. This would be an indication that you possess one of the important qualities of a CEO.
So, to be more adaptable:
- Change mindset. Whenever you face a change, think about any positive aspects first. For example, if your COO suddenly quits, it might be an opportunity for restructuring or bringing someone better along. Keep an open mind and try to see challenges as opportunities.
- Build scenarios and prepare. Related to the ability of foresight, being adaptable is to often anticipate what you’ll need to adapt to. That way you won’t be taken by surprise and make decisions under pressure. Take it from Warren Buffett and spend substantial chunks of time just thinking and preparing. Sometimes, you may find that you’ll have to prepare to resist change in a particular scenario.
- Push yourself to improvise. Some people are naturally adaptable, while others prefer structure and predictability. As a CEO, you’ll definitely deal with change one way or another, so if you don’t feel adaptability comes naturally, push yourself to experiment (e.g. by changing the agenda of a standard meeting, discussing an unexpected business move or taking a calculated risk).
Any good employee, no matter their rank, needs to be reliable. But, we’re all human: we may promise something we can’t deliver, or make the wrong decision in a critical matter. The problem is, when CEOs exhibit these behaviors, even rarely, they risk losing the trust of important people (namely their employees and the board of directors). That’s why a CEO should strive to be reliable all the time. It’s one of the most important qualities of a CEO.
Of course, this might not always happen – even generally popular CEO Elon Musk has drawn fire for possibly breaking laws that protect unions and alienating many of his employees. This may hurt his reliability in the eyes of many people, as he was often considered a leader with a solid public image who cared about his company’s employees.
So, to be reliable:
- Be transparent. Sometimes, you can’t guarantee that something will or will not happen, or that some action will succeed. But, it pays off to be honest about why you made a particular decision or even what you’ll be considering in order to make a decision.
- Prioritize and deliver on commitments. It’s important to accurately estimate the time and resources you have available, as well as the importance of each task. Be honest about when and what you can deliver, and make sure your calendar allows you to carry everything out.
- Think about your words and actions very carefully beforehand. CEOs must be extra careful with what they say or do, since every move you make is likely to be heavily scrutinized by those you depend on most to ensure the success of your organization – your colleagues.
Doing things autonomously is a behavior often associated with people of power, those looking down on everyone else from a watchtower and making decisions on their own. But, in real life, this is seldom the case for a smart CEO – there’s a great number of people whose input you need in order to make proper strategic and people decisions. Most CEOs know how important it is to consult with your C-suite team and even your lower-level employees.
This is one of the qualities of a CEO that involves active listening, posing the right questions and asking for feedback, and often also delegating work to your colleagues. As HR expert Hung Lee recently told us in an interview about CEO recruiting challenges: “We all interact with others in our work and we need to trust them to a certain degree to deliver for us.”
So, to make sure you can take advantage of teamwork:
- Build your team very carefully. To do this, consider building up your recruiting team first to help you find the best colleagues afterwards. Then, look into your network for competent people you trust.
- Listen well. Being a team player requires listening to what others have to say. Spend most of the time in meetings asking for information or feedback. Create plans jointly with your executive team when appropriate.
- Identify the right people to speak to. You’ll probably discuss a merger with the CFO, but shouldn’t you spend an equal amount of time talking about this to your HR manager, too? Make sure you really think about whose input would be useful to you each time.
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Last but not least, decency: a trait that can greatly help you be a better CEO. A significant part of a CEO’s job is relationship-building; with shareholders, investors, employees, and the public. It’ll be much easier for others to trust you enough to understand your vision and help you realize it, if you show genuine decency and care toward them.
And that, of course, doesn’t only mean being a good person. It’s about showing compassion and understanding, and also being alert for how different factors impact your employees or the public. What happened with former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is an example to avoid: he was accused of allowing a toxic culture of sexual harassment inside Uber. This cost him his job and cost other people a lot more.
So, to show your decency toward others:
- Put the human factor first. It’s easy to get lost in numbers and the business side of things – you’re accountable for these things after all. But, make sure you always consider the impact on people before you make decisions.
- Ask for feedback. Talk with people about what they think of a situation or how they perceive something (e.g. a comment or a decision you made, or a process you want to implement). Pay attention to what they say and analyze it.
- Look for approaches that work. Sometimes, there’s a way to approach a situation that you haven’t thought of. Search for methods or examples of handling difficult situations such as layoffs and firing employees.
But… what makes a successful CEO is more than a list
Our list of the top qualities of a CEO is by no means exhaustive. Leading an organization is a complex job that demands all kinds of skills. What’s important is to seek out the feedback and advice you need to develop all critical qualities of a CEO.
So, whether you want to be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg is up to you. Learn about how to become a better CEO by studying examples of leadership to emulate and examples to avoid. And remember, the best CEOs are the ones people want to work with. With the five traits featured here, you’re well on your way to inspire and retain your best employees and stakeholders.
Frequently asked questions
- A CEO should have a clear direction in which they want to steer their business. Ambition and optimism are good things when grounded in reality, and the head of a company needs to believe in those goals. Being able to inspire others to buy into your vision is an important tool in leadership.
- What are the skills required to be a CEO?
- Skills needed to be a CEO include sociability, teamwork, learning new things, creativity, time management skills, erudition, and strong communication skills. To find the most talented employees in the coming years, you will need these skills for you and everyone on your team.
- What hard skills should CEOs have?
- CEOs must communicate with their employees using concise, easy-to-understand language, and they need to know how to foster collaboration and open-mindedness among their subordinates to grow the business.