It’s rare to find successful leaders who excel at all four behaviours. However, during the research by the CEO Genome Project, when studying the ratings the consultants had given candidates from evaluating them on fit for a CEO job and performance on 30 management competencies, an interesting connection was discovered. Roughly half the strong candidates (who had earned an A overall on a scale of A, B, or C) had distinguished themselves in more than one of the four essential behaviours, while only 5% of the weak candidates (who earned a B or C) had.
These behaviours sound deceptively simple, but the key is to practice them with maniacal consistency, which is a great challenge for many leaders. Here are the 4 elements that set successful CEOs apart:
Deciding with speed and conviction
Stories about CEOs who always seem to know exactly how to steer their companies to wild success seem to abound in business. But it was discovered that high-performing CEOs do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions all the time; rather, they stand out for being more decisive. They make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction. They do so consistently, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains. In the data, people who were described as “decisive” were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs.
Interestingly, the highest-IQ executives, especially those who relish intellectual complexity, sometimes struggle the most with decisiveness. While the quality of their decisions is often good, because of their pursuit of the perfect answer, they can take too long to make choices or set clear priorities—and their teams pay a high price. These smart but slow decision makers become bottlenecks, and their teams either grow frustrated or become overcautious themselves, stalling the entire enterprise. High-performing CEOs understand that a wrong decision is often better than no decision at all.
Engaging for impact
When CEOs set a clear course for the business, they must get buy-in among their employees and other stakeholders. It was discovered that strong performers balance keen insight into their stakeholders’ priorities with an unrelenting focus on delivering business results. They start by developing an astute understanding of their stakeholders’ needs and motivations, and then get people on board by driving for performance and aligning them around the goal of value creation. In the data, CEOs who deftly engaged stakeholders with this results orientation were 75% more successful in the role.
CEOs who excel at bringing others along plan and execute disciplined communications and influencing strategies. “With any big decision, I create a stakeholder map of the key people who need to be on board,” explains Madeline Bell, CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
To understand how important it is for businesses and leaders to adjust to a rapidly changing environment, we need look no further than the aftermath of Brexit and the recent U.S. presidential election. When asked what differentiates effective CEOs, Dominic Barton, global managing partner of McKinsey & Company, immediately offered: “It’s dealing with situations that are not in the playbook. As a CEO you are constantly faced with situations where a playbook simply cannot exist. You’d better be ready to adapt.”
Mundane as it may sound, the ability to reliably produce results was possibly the most powerful of the four essential CEO behaviours. Based on the research findings, CEO candidates who scored high on reliability were twice as likely to be picked for the role and 15 times more likely to succeed in it. Boards and investors love a steady hand, and employees trust predictable leaders. A key practice here is setting realistic expectations up front. In their first weeks on the job reliable CEOs resist the temptation to jump into execution mode. They dig into budgets and plans, and engage with board members, employees, and customers to understand expectations. At the same time, they rapidly assess the business to develop their own point of view on what’s realistic and work to align expectations with that.