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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

What Makes a Chief Executive?

5 Qualities Blog

If you’re looking for advice on what makes a successful CEO, whether female or male, there’s plenty of it about. As the School for CEOs comes up to its first all-female programme on 15 June 2017, it’s worth looking at the qualities that lead to success.

Firstly, that wealth of advice out there. As an example, Justin Menkes of headhunters Spencer Stuart writes in the Harvard Business Review about three capabilities or traits every CEO must have: realistic optimism, subservience to purpose and finding order in chaos. Dean Stamoulis and Erika Mannion of rival headhunters Russell Reynolds go six better with no fewer than nine attributes, although they still group them in three blocks: forward thinking, intrepid and team building. And according to Joel Trammell, a software CEO and contributor to Forbes magazine, it’s the three C’s that matter: credibility, competence and caring. You’ll notice that clusters of three abound. Allegedly, we have management consultants McKinsey to thank for that particular trope.

All these lists, and many more, describe the truth. They each capture one (or three) aspect of the CEO’s role, and the special qualities that are associated with success. I too have a list, built up over years of interaction with some of the very best (and very worst) CEOs on the planet, in companies large, medium and small. Just to be different, my list has five items on it, although I’m sure I could group them in three if I tried hard enough. In my view, these five qualities determine whether you’re going to make it to the top in the first place and be successful once you’re there:

1. Determination. Nobody ever got to be CEO without plenty of drive, desire, hunger, energy. It’s a competitive world out there and plenty of people want the big job. Determination is critical to success
2. People Skills. Business is all about groups of people coming together for a common purpose. As the leader, it’s your job to set that purpose and to inspire your team to fulfil it. Great leaders spend at least 50% of their time on people issues
3. Business Tools. You’ll need to know the essentials of strategy, finance, lean, the Companies Act, etc. It’s no accident that some of the best entrepreneurs were accountants in an earlier life, or that ex-consultants and MBAs are increasingly prevalent amongst CEOs
4. Judgement. Can you make the right decisions under pressure? It always looks pretty easy from the outside and with hindsight, but when you’re in the middle of things it can be very hard to know what the correct answer is or why you feel that way
5. ‘Magic’. This captures that indefinable something that the best CEOs have, that extra quality that sets them apart in a hierarchy. Some talk about charisma, the X-factor or authenticity. I think it’s about all these aspects and more. For me, it’s ‘magic’.

I believe these are the five things you need. Some can be taught by academics: Business Tools for sure, People Skills a little. Some you can gain through experience, particularly Judgement and People Skills. And some, while innate, can be greatly enhanced through exposure to people who are in top CEO positions already. Judgement, Determination and ‘Magic’ come to mind. As it happens, the School for CEOs’ programmes are designed to deliver precisely that exposure. Everyone has the chance to learn from the best.

© Patrick Macdonald 2017

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