Five secrets of the world’s top CEOs
It takes a combination of skill, imagination, nerve and attitude to be chief executive or chairman of any successful organisation
Imagine 100 people working at a large company. They’re all middle managers, about 35 years old. They’re all smart, collegial and hard-working. So what will determine who gets the next promotion, and the one after that? Which of them, when the time comes, will get that corner office?
In other words, what does it take to lead an organisation – whether it’s a sports team, a charity, a startup or a multinational corporation? What are the X factors?
Interviews I conducted with more than 70 chief executives and other leaders for my weekly Corner Office column in the New York Times, point to five essentials for success, qualities that most of those chief executives share and look for in people they hire.
The good news is these traits are not genetic. They’re developed through attitude, habit and discipline; factors within your control. They will make you a better employee, manager and leader. They will lift the trajectory of your career and speed your progress.
These aren’t theories. They come from decades of the collective experience of top executives who have learned first-hand what it takes to succeed.
They have watched others attempt a similar climb and noticed the qualities that set people apart. These CEOs offered myriad lessons and insights on the art of managing and leading, but they all shared five qualities: passionate curiosity, battle-hardened confidence, team smarts, a simple mindset and fearlessness.
1 Passionate curiosity
Many successful chief executives are passionately curious people. It is a side of them rarely seen in the media and in investor meetings, and there is a reason for that. In business, CEOs are supposed to project confidence and breezy authority. Certainty is the game face they wear.
But get them away from these familiar scripts and a different side emerges. They share stories about mistakes and failures. They ask big-picture questions. They wonder why things work the way they do and whether those things can be improved upon. They want to know people’s stories, and what they do.
It is this relentless questioning that leads entrepreneurs to spot opportunities and helps managers understand the people who work for them, and how to get them to work together effectively.
It is no coincidence that more than one executive uttered the same phrase when describing what, ultimately, is the CEO’s job: “I am a student of human nature.”
CEOs are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students. The letters could just as easily stand for chief education officer.
“You learn from everybody,” says Alan R Mulally, chief executive of motor company Ford. “I’ve always just wanted to learn everything, to understand anybody that I was around – why they thought what they did, why they did what they did, what worked for them, what didn’t work.”
Though chief executives are paid to have answers, their greatest contributions to their organisations may be asking the right questions. They recognise they can’t have the answer to everything, but they can push their company in new directions and marshal the collective energy of their employees by asking the right questions.
2 Battle-hardened confidence
Some people embrace adversity, even relish it, and they have a track record of overcoming it. They have battle-hardened confidence.
And because the best predictor of behaviour is past performance, many chief executives interview job candidates about how they dealt with failure in the past. They want to know if somebody is the kind of person who takes ownership of challenges or starts looking for excuses.
“I think hiring great people remains extremely, extremely hard,” says Jen-Hsun Huang of Nvidia. “You can never really tell how somebody deals with adversity. When you have a difficult situation, some people just take it and run with it. Some people see adversity and they cower, as talented as they are. You could ask them about the adversity they had dealt with in the past, but you never really know the intensity of that adversity.”
Many CEOs seem driven by a strong work ethic forged in adversity. As they moved up in organisations, the attitude remained the same: this is my job, and I’m going to own it. Because of that attitude, they are rewarded with more challenges and promotions.
“I like hiring people who have overcome adversity because I believe I’ve seen in my own career that perseverance is really important,” says Nancy McKinstry, chief executive of global information services and publishing company Wolters Kluwer.
“I will ask them directly: ‘Give me an example of some adverse situation you faced, what did you do about it, and what did you learn from it?’ The people I’ve hired who have had that ability to describe the situation have always worked out, because they’re able to sort of fall down, dust themselves off and keep fighting the next day.”
3 Team smarts
At some point, the notion of being a team player became devalued in corporate life. It has been reduced to a truism: I work on a team, therefore I am a team player.
It is a point captured in a cartoon by Mike Baldwin , by Mike Baldwin, in which an interviewer says to a job candidate: “We need a dedicated team player. How are you at toiling in obscurity?”
The most effective executives are more than just team players. They understand how teams work and how to get the most out of the group. Just as some people have street smarts, other people have team smarts.
Mark Pincus, chief executive of online gaming company Zynga, says he learned lessons about teamwork playing soccer. Even today, he says, he can spot people who would be good hires because of how they play.
“One is reliability,” he says. “There are people who have this kind of intelligence and they can make these great plays. It’s like their heads are really in the game.”
Companies increasingly operate through the use of ad hoc teams. Team smarts refers to the ability to recognise those players the team needs and how to bring them together around a common goal.
“Early on, I was wowed by talent, and I was willing to set aside the idea that this person might not be a team player,” says Susan Lyne, chairman of online fashion retailer Gilt Groupe.
“Now, I need people who are going to be able to build a team, manage a team, recruit well and work well with their peers. The people who truly succeed in business are the ones who actually have figured out how to mobilise people who are not their direct reports.”
4 A simple mindset
There is a stubborn disconnect in many companies. Most senior executives want the same thing from people who present to them: be concise, get to the point, make it simple.
Yet few people can deliver the simplicity that many bosses want. Instead, they mistakenly assume the bosses will be impressed by a long PowerPoint presentation that shows how diligently they researched a topic, or that they will win over their superiors by talking more, not less.
If executives in positions of authority are clear about what they want, why can’t they get the people who report to them to lose the “Power” part of their presentations and simply get to the “Point”?
There are a few likely explanations. A lot of people have trouble being concise. Next time you are in a meeting, ask somebody to give you a 10-word summary of his or her idea. Some people can do it while others will have trouble identifying the core point.
Another possible explanation is that a lag exists in the business world. There was a time when simply having certain information was a competitive advantage. Now, in the internet era, most people have easy access to the same information. That puts a greater premium on the ability to synthesise, to connect dots in new ways and to ask simple, smart questions that lead to untapped opportunities.
“It seems, back in the day, the longer your business plan was, the more promising it was going to be,” says Dany Levy, chairman and founder of DailyCandy.com. “And now, the shorter your business plan is, the more succinct and to the point it is, the better. You want people to get why your business is going to work pretty quickly.”
Are you comfortable being uncomfortable? Do you like situations where there’s no road map or compass? Do you start twitching when things are operating smoothly and want to shake things up? Are you willing to make surprising career moves to learn new skills?
In other words, are you fearless? Risk-taking is often associated with entrepreneurs making bet-the-farm wagers on a new idea. But risk-taking doesn’t quite capture the quality that many CEOs embody and look for and encourage in others.
With the business world in endless turmoil, maintaining the status quo is only going to put you behind the competition. So chief executives speak with reverence about executives on their teams who are fearless.
They wish they could bottle it and pass it out to all their employees. They are looking for calculated and informed risk-taking, but mostly they want people to do things – and not just what they’re told to do. “One of the things that I characterise as fearlessness is seeing an opportunity, even though things are not broken,” says Ursula M Burns, chief executive of Xerox. “Someone will say ‘things are good, but I’m going to destabilise them because they can be much better and should be much better’.”
These five qualities help determine who will be chosen for bigger roles and more responsibility. Those promotions will inevitably bring challenges that require learning through trial and error.
Chief executives can act as mentors to speed people along that learning curve. They may not develop silver-bullet theories, but they are experts in leadership because they practise it daily. And many of them have spent years honing their leadership styles, studying what works and what doesn’t, and then teaching others.
Through their stories, lessons and insights, they have much to offer beyond the hard numbers.
Adam Bryant is the deputy national editor of the New York Times and author of The Corner Office: How Top CEOs Made it and How You Can Too (Harper Press, RRP £12.99). To order a copy for £10.39 including free UK mainland P&P, visit guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846