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The Four Behaviors of Successful CEOs

Be honest, when you think of successful CEO what comes to mind? For many, it’s a charismatic white-man, with a degree from a top university and a straight-to-the-top career path. It’s an unfortunate stereotype, but a stereotype nonetheless. But according to a 10-year study, the CEO Genome Project, few successful leaders actually fit this profile. The CEO Genome Project was conducted by ghSmart and was pulled from a database of assessments of 17,000 c-suite executives - including more than 2,000 CEOS - which covers all major industry sectors and a full range of company sizes.


It may come as a surprise, or not, that many of the widely held assumptions of the stereotype mentioned above, didn’t hold up. For instance, while boards often gravitate toward charismatic extroverts, introverts are slightly more likely to surpass the expectations of their boards and investors. Another surprising finding - 45% of CEO candidates had at least one major career blowup that ended a job or was extremely costly to the business. Additionally, educational pedigree (or lack of) in no way correlated to performance: only 7% of the high-performing CEOs studied had an undergraduate Ivy League education, and 8% of them didn’t graduate from college at all. And not surprisingly, race and gender were shown to play no effect in the success of a CEO.


So what does make a successful CEO? The CEO Genome Project identified four behaviors that successful CEOs tend to demonstrate. It’s rare for successful leaders to excel at all four behaviors, however, most of the CEOs studied had distinguished themselves in more than one of the four essential behaviors, while only 5% of the weaker candidates had.


The Four Behaviors:


1. Deciding with speed and conviction

It’s not always about making great decisions; but great CEOs do stand out for being decisive. They make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction. They do so consistently - even amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar situations. In the study, people who were described as “decisive” were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs. Good CEOs realize that a wrong decision is likely better than no decision at all. A wrong decision can be undone, but no decision at all leads to a lack of direction for the organization. And when you’re trying to gather all the information you can, you slow down decision making and become bottlenecks for your teams, causing them to either grow frustrated (which can lead to rising valuable talent) or become overcautious themselves, stalling the entire organization.


2. Engaging for impact

Once there is a clear course for the business, they must get buy-in from their employees and other stakeholders. The study found that stronger performers balance keen insight into their stakeholders’ priorities with an unrelenting focus on delivering business results. They understand their stakeholders’ needs and motivations, and then get people on board by driving for performance and aligning them around the goal of value creation. CEOs who excel at bring others along plan and execute disciplined communications and influencing strategies. They do not invest their energy in being liked or protecting their teams from painful decision. They gain the support of their colleagues by instilling confidence that they will lead the team to success, even if that means making uncomfortable or unpopular moves.


3. Adapting proactively

CEOs who excel at adapting are 6.7 times more likely to succeed. While most CEOs know they have to divide their attention among short-, medium-, and long-term perspectives, the adaptable CEOs spent significantly more time thinking about the long-term. A long-term focus helps because it makes CEOs more likely to pick up on early signals. Highly adaptable CEOs regularly scan wide networks and diverse sources of data, finding relevant in information that may at first seem unrelated to their business. As a result, they sense change earlier and make strategic moves to take advantage of it. Adaptable CEOs also recognize that setbacks are an integral part of changing course and treat their mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.


4. Delivering reliability

The ability to reliably produce results was possibly the most powerful of the four essential CEO behaviors. In the sample of CEOs in this study, those who scored high on reliability were 15 times more likely to succeed in their role. Boards and investors love a steady hand, and employees trust predictable leaders. Reliable CEOs set realistic expectations up front, have strong organization and planning skills, they establish business management systems, and they surround themselves with a strong team.


There is no perfect mix of the four behaviors that works for every CEO position. The industry and company determine which behaviors and skills are most important in any particular situation. But focusing on these essential behaviors improve an individual leader’s chances of succeeding the the role.

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