How do you recognize a good CEO?

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How do you separate bright executives from the top of the company to appoint the future CEO?

Adam Bryant, who writes the column for the New York Times Corner Office, attempts to answer this question in his book The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons From CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed. He interviewed more than 70 business leaders, and highlighted 5 characteristics specific to the best leaders, which they look for in others. Good news: none of them is innate, all of them can be learned, without having a theoretical character.

A passionate curiosity

Despite the smooth image they give in the media, which suggests that they know everything they need to know and never suspect themselves, good leaders are insatiable curious people who constantly ask themselves questions. They are interested in everything, in everyone, and they appreciate the success and failure stories of others. “I am a student of human nature,” several CEOs interviewed by Adam Bryant said. But they do it in a passionate way, that is, they are interested in a multiplicity of subjects far beyond a surface curiosity, they are fascinated by what is happening around them and seize the subjects, asking questions, wanting to know more and more. And they are thus able to question the working methods, choices, or ways of thinking that govern companies.

The sense of perseverance

Some people are stimulated by the tests, but it is difficult to detect this potential in a candidate. Jen-Hsun Huang, who heads Nvidia, expresses this difficulty well: “You can never really say how a person reacts to adversity. When a difficult situation arises, some will take it and work with it. Others see the obstacle and curl up, even if they are talented. You can ask them what difficulties they have encountered in the past, but you will never really know the intensity of this avatar.”

It is therefore necessary to learn about past achievements, and how the candidate has managed his or her failures, paying attention to how he or she has assessed the situation. It must result in a determination with a sense of purpose, which underlines his confidence to influence events, and to optimize what he can act on.

Team spirit

It is not limited to knowing how to work in a team, but it implies an ability to understand how each person plays his or her score to optimize the team’s game. Some people have an ability to understand how the team is articulated, and can therefore better meet its needs. They have a “peripheral vision”, which allows them to understand each other’s relationships, and even to mobilize people who are not directly subordinate to them.

A synthetic mind

Many companies suffer from a contradiction: while managers expect simple and effective reporting, managers feel obliged to justify their position and work with complicated presentations. Many people are unable to be concise. Some people don’t even know how to identify the heart of a problem. In addition, for a long time, the information provided an advantage to its holder. In today’s world, information has been democratized through the Internet, and the new challenge is to synthesize and summarize it. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, eliminates the superfluous by asking his executives to submit their presentations to him in preparation for the meeting. He examines them in advance, and draws 4 questions from them that he will ask at the meeting. This allows us to better focus on the real issues.

The Courage

Good CEOs are fearless, comfortable in uncomfortable areas and on roads without maps or compasses. And this does not only include a taste for risk-taking. It is also necessary to be able to question things that are already working well to improve them, to put them out of reach of competition, and to uncover new business opportunities, at the risk of displeasing those who appreciated the status quo. “Companies that get into trouble are the ones that are really complacent, when they set up and say OK, we are doing well, now,” says Ursulla M. Burns of Xerox. And like the other four qualities, courage is an attitude, which can therefore be learned to control and develop, taking more risks.

Published by Dave John

Decade of work experience in leadership consulting with strong focus on talent acquisition & assessment across different industries and geographies.

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