Traits of the Best CEOs

By Fred Coon

There is no need to name names here. We needn’t ostracize or stigmatize individuals, especially since some of them are probably too vain to recognize themselves being described as less than stellar anyway!

SC&C CEO best attributesBut let’s be honest—the best CEOs and leaders in all industries are distinct from the merely good or mediocre. And sometimes it’s surprisingly obvious.

There are a number of such characters from the world of fiction that we could refer to, and use to make our points. Recently popular Tony Stark comes to mind. He’s an intellectual giant, extremely creative, ridiculously wealthy, and likes to place his name on large buildings that he owns. He also built himself a flying robot suit (Ironman) to fight crime. That part may be a little over-the-top.

Executive Skills

But what do we see when we look at Tony Stark the executive? He categorizes everything. He focuses on areas where he has extra-ordinary ability and works relentlessly to achieve his goals.

In areas where he has superior ability, even lacking a sense of passion, he will do the job because no one else can do it better than he can. He recognizes the responsibility to get the job done the best way possible.

When the job requires competence, where he has adequate ability, but it could be done by others, he delegates so that he can focus on the most important issues.

These are things that the truly competent do automatically. It’s not thoughtful or considered—it’s just the best way to get the job done. It’s the hallmark of someone who knows how to be great.

Be Respectful

One thing that sets Tony Stark apart from many real world individuals in a similar position is that he is unfailingly polite to everybody from his peers to his minions (although less so to his fellow crime-fighting companions for humorous effect). He says “please” and “thank you” to everybody (including his computerized butler, Jarvis) because he understands that it takes practically no effort to treat people decently, and yet it’s surprisingly meaningful to those on the receiving end.

Compare that to some executives, CEOs, and “Leaders” you may have met that are brash, rude, and arrogant to the point that they interrupt others and speak loudly to drown them out. They simply don’t regard other people’s opinions as important as—or certainly less important than—their own.

Leader’s Best Attributes

SC&C being a leaderIf you’ve decided you want to transcend the banal, that you want to be the person other people reference when they’re looking for an iconic representative of “good,” or a bastion of accomplishment, there are some things that you have to do. Here are some of the best attributes that successful leaders do regularly:

  • Keep your word; always do what you say you’re going to do. Don’t settle for doing just enough to get by; if you can, over deliver a little bit, without explanation.

    Part of that is don’t call a 9:30 AM meeting that doesn’t start until 9:45 or 10:00; don’t say it’s going to be 90 minutes and then let it drag on for 2 hours are more.

  • Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish with your time, to paraphrase the old expression. If you have every hour and minute planned without a fixed accomplishment for your day worked out, you’re just spinning your wheels.

    Your daily plans should advance your weekly plans which should mesh with your monthly plans, driving your annual goals. Review them regularly to make sure they’re still consistent and valid

  • Communicate with your people to maximize accomplishment and minimize frustration. You’re the engineer of this “business train,” it’s your job to lubricate all the parts and make sure they’re running smoothly, to stomp out the little embers before they become real fires that need to be fought.

    “I insist people on the Birchbox team indicate when they need a response in all emails. It makes prioritization so much faster.” —Katia Beauchamp, co-founder of Birchbox

  • Surround yourself with experts, not “yes-men” (of either sex). Make sure you understand why they’re giving you any particular advice. If they can’t explain their reasoning then it is probably not reasoning, but rather guesswork. Find people who can tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear.
  • SC&C Teamwork is leadershipBe a team mentor and coach. Teach them to take responsibility and be accountable for their results. Encourage them to strive for exceptional results, like you yourself do. Don’t be reluctant to accept planned results gratefully, but do take extra time to celebrate exceptional results and the people that brought them to you.
  • Use visual language, chockfull of imagery, so people can “see” what you are talking about. Quoting strings of numbers at people does not inspire imagination or help them understand your point of view. As an aide to this, read some recreational fiction fairly frequently to help you make this communication technique intrinsic to your speech style.
  • Take risks. You cannot grow without the potential for failure. Tom Watson used to like to tell this story:

    “Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?” –Thomas John Watson Sr., first CEO at IBM

  • Practice making decisions with only 75% of the available information. When crunch time comes and you really must make a significant decision with incomplete information it will be much easier because you’re experienced.

I’ve seen pages and pages of “Rules for Success” but it really comes down to this:

  • Be civil; treat other people the way you would like to be treated.
  • You can’t do everything. Do the things you’re great at, or that nobody else can handle, but retain the discretion to step away and delegate a task to someone with greater expertise.
  • Give proper credit to contributors on a project; great leaders don’t “hog” the Glory.
  • Be adventurous to grow
  • Take ownership of problems when they arrive; consult and find solutions.
  • Don’t be afraid to delegate.

Now you know what to do. Go do it, and be great!

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