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Business Leadership

by Mike Daniell


What Do You Need To Become A Good CEO?

Billionaire Venture Capitalist, author and CEO coach, Ben Horowitz laughs at the idea that anyone is born a leader. He has said, numerous times and in his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, that leaders are born, not made.

Leadership, being a CEO, whether in a permanent or interim capacity, means being very good at unnatural skills. CEO’s need to get used to the fact that what they do and how they manage teams, impacts far beyond their direct reports. How you lead sets the tone, influences the organisation’s culture, client relations, hiring practices, even revenue.

5 Core Skills Of Successful CEOs

A CEO’s management style impacts on an organisation top to bottom. Are you cool under pressure? Do you cut corners? Do you undermine or enable? There is no one size fits all approach to leadership. Each CEO must do what is right for them, their business and industry.

Core Skill 1: Take A Different Direction

Being a CEO is an unnatural experience. This is a job description built on turning left when your normal instinct is to turn right. Leadership roles are a result of social engineering. The need for leaders in our society goes back to a time long before the word ‘society’ existed.

But even with all this, it does not make being a CEO any easier. For anyone who takes on such a role it feels like wearing someone else’s shoes; and they are not easy shoes to fill.

Core Skill 2: Embrace Giving Feedback

Feedback is a core competency for leaders at every level. For CEOs, this means demonstrating how to give feedback, so that this management style filters throughout the management team.

Feedback is your strongest tool. Horowitz compares this to a friend telling a joke, and then you critiquing their performance, telling them what they could do better next time. Not a natural reaction to a joke, but that’s what CEOs need to do every day.

Jack Welch, a former GE CEO, turned author and business educator, published an article on LinkedIn confirming every employees worst fear about performance reviews: managers hate them too.

Welch suggests asking your boss for a gift of honest truth, when it comes to your performance and what you can do to improve. “Far too often, bosses don’t give the gift of candid feedback, year-end or otherwise. They’re too busy. They hate the process.” He said, “in my work over the past 15 years with literally tens of thousands of employees across every industry, I’d estimate that fewer than 20 percent get the kind of performance feedback they yearn for.”

Core Skill 3: Embrace Responsibility, But Have Support

Being a CEO is hard. Whether you are running a startup or FTSE100 company. Everything is on your shoulders, with you answering to a board above and managers below, as well as customers and shareholders too.

It can feel lonely at the top. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Don’t take on 100% of that responsibility without support. Firstly, a good leader doesn’t do everything themselves: they delegate to senior executives, skilled in their respective fields and business functions. Micromanagers make bad leaders and terrible CEOs.

Secondly, support should extend beyond the corridors of your office. Virgin Group Founder, Sir Richard Branson, has long been an advocate of mentors. So is Ben Horowitz. Both men went through moments in their careers when an outside perspective, a more experienced view was the lifeline they needed to make the hard decisions that kept their businesses alive. Every CEO needs good mentors.

Friends, family, hobbies, travel and time away from the office, is also essential, to keep the balance you need to be a successful leader.

Core Skill 4: Training Is For Everyone, Especially The CEO

An article in The Economist recently argued that British managers are to blame for the low productivity of British workers, itself a worrying drag on economic performance.

John van Reenen, director at the London School of Economics (LSE’s) Centre for Economic Performance, found that British management is “significantly below” other leading economies. Accidental managers are good at their job and then are promoted. As a result, the UK doesn’t consider or approach management as a professional class, who are more common in other countries. The British, ‘we’ll muddle through’ attitude, resulting in gifted amateurs running teams, departments, even whole companies, is a sign that management training is needed.

Training benefits everyone. Employees are more likely to be engaged and stay with an employer that invests in their professional future. Managers will be more effective, more able to adapt to challenges and inspire others when they have the skills and tools to manage teams.

CEOs would also benefit enormously. Given the special set of skills required of those managing a business, this is one role where training would have an outsized and ongoing impact.

Core Skill 5: Assess And Review Downside Risk

Dozens of things can go wrong when running a business. A competitor could take a core market or a big client away. You could suffer serious financial setbacks. Regulatory changes could harm a product launch. Key staff could leave, lured away by a higher salary and more benefits.

Not thinking about what could go wrong doesn’t mean that nothing will. Being prepared for the worst means it won’t catch you off guard, should anything go wrong. As CEO, this is your job: to worry about those things that others around you don’t even need to think about.

Don’t leave this as a paper exercise, either. Make this an activity you conduct quarterly, with your mentor and senior staff.

Being a CEO is not easy, but there are numerous things you can do to share the burden and ensure you are the most effective leader possible for your organisation.

Key Takeaways:

  • Embrace the fact that being a CEO means being skilled at an unnatural range of skills, such as giving feedback.
  • What a leader does is more important than what you say: how a leader acts sets the tone for other managers and staff throughout the company.
  • Ensure you have support. Delegate, have at least one mentor and spend time away from the office. Balance in life means being a well-balanced, more effective CEO.
  • Support training initiatives, especially for managers - including yourself. CEOs need training as much, if not more than most managers.
  • Ensure you are prepared for every negative eventuality. Have a plan in place, so that should the worse happen, you are prepared.

If you are a CEO what lessons have you learnt from your experience in this leadership position that you can share with our community? Leave a comment below about the above post, or on any leadership insights that might benefit aspiring and existing CEOs.

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About the Author

Mike is a recruitment specialist with over 10 years’ experience in predominantly Interim Management, complimented with exposure to contingent and retained Executive Search assignments. He has worked with both large global enterprises and SMEs within a variety of industries, including Technology (Telcos, Software, Vendors and Systems Integrators), Financial Services (Retail Banking, Investment Banking and Insurance), Manufacturing and Oil and Gas / Minex.

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