21 August 2017

Five qualities that make a
great CEO.

You don't have to be the smartest person in the room. But it helps to be highly intelligent. You don't have to be the most charismatic person. But you need to be able to command respect and attention. You don't have to be ruthless. But you do need to be able to make unpopular decisions.

Great CEOs come in all shapes and sizes. From the flamboyant like Richard Branson through to the quietly spoken like Google's Sundar Pichai. Some are extroverts, others introverts. Some excel at working on the granular details that keep an organisation running smoothly; while others do their best work from up on high, formulating strategy or dreaming big about brilliant products. Others still are just great all-rounders.

However, when you sit in a boardroom, you should instantly know who the CEO is. They have that je ne sai quoi, an undeniable quality that exerts leadership. There's an unquestionable sense that this person is taking care of business, getting things done, making it happen. When they speak, the word gravitas comes to mind.

But breaking down the qualities of a great CEO is complicated. There is a whole matrix of traits and skills that piece together to differentiate a great CEO from other senior executives. These include: 

  • Understanding the importance of vision and strategy. Being able to put everything into its proper context, knowing how all the parts come together to make the bigger picture. It's about being able to think several moves ahead and discerning how your organisation relates to competitors, the market, your industry and other agents and forces of influence.
  • Understanding your USP. Great CEOs are keepers of the brand flame. They get what makes the organisation work and they understand its unique selling proposition, which is what attracts and engages customers. Above all else, great CEOs work to protect, cherish and enhance their company’s brand and USP.
  • Great CEOs surround themselves with great people. Very few CEOs can lay claim to being experts in all the areas of relevance to their business. Instead, they understand their job is to mentor and inspire their team to achieve all they can, and to take themselves and the company to the next level. They know how to motivate the people around them in a way that goes beyond merely financial inducements by speaking to a higher level of engagement and purpose.
  • Communicate well and often. This is about both listening and speaking to people in a way that inspires confidence and clear, open communications. Great CEOs understand the power of a quiet chat away from the crowd as well as the power of broadcasting to a wider audience. They use the right medium for the job, from face-to-face meetings through to social media to get their message across.
  • Build strong stakeholder relations. A company, an organisation, is a cooperative effort. It might be defined by the vision of a founder (Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, for example) but it is the job of the CEO to rally a disparate group of people behind that vision. This takes political skill and requires the capacity to persuade and build consensus. A major part of this task is for the CEO to have a constructive and open relationship with their board. Learning to seek feedback and advice from board members, keeping them informed, respecting and appreciating them. Great CEOs understand that building consensus at board level creates momentum throughout the organisation’s operations.

A great CEO is able to bring all these five qualities to the table, and a little more. That little more is often the personal ‘superhero’ power they also possess. It may be an intricate understanding of the technical details of their business; it could be a flair for sales and marketing that adds sparkle to their company’s brand; or it could be the vast and deep connections and networks they have developed.

Ultimately, a CEO’s success will always be measured by their ability to motivate those around them and achieve results. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for being a great CEO, but having the five qualities listed above is a solid starting point.

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