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The traits that separate CEOs from other leaders 

By Neil Amato 
September 25 2013

A willingness to take calculated risks, a bias toward thoughtful action and the ability to efficiently read people are the three attributes that separate CEOs from other leaders. That’s according to Russell Reynolds Associates, an executive search firm, which examined survey responses from more than 3,700 executives, including 134 chief executives at large companies in North America and Europe.

“For sitting CEOs and those who wish to become a CEO – and for boards who need to effectively identify and prepare CEO successors – knowing which skills and abilities matter most is essential for success,” the report said.

Overall, nine of 60 common traits separate CEOs from the rest of the leadership pack. The other six on Russell Reynolds’s list: forward thinking, optimistic, constructively tough-minded, measured emotion, pragmatically inclusive, and a willingness to trust.

The other 51 attributes are important, but they do not differentiate CEOs from other executives, the report said.

The nine key attributes fall into three categories:

  • Forward thinking (a category of one attribute): The ability to plan for the future while focusing on the present.
  • Intrepid: The ability to perform effectively in complex and difficult environments.
  • Team building: The ability to achieve success through others.

Analysis of the nine attributes “reveals a number of interesting CEO profile paradoxes,” according to Russell Reynolds, which detailed several CEO “differentiators” related to the attributes. For example, the CEO differentiator for the attribute “measured emotion” is “displays intensity/emotion but maintains control.”

The CEO differentiator for “efficient reader of people” is someone who “seeks to understand different perspectives but does not overanalyse.”

The research recommends three actions that CEOs, aspiring CEOs and boards can take to improve succession planning, leadership development and talent retention strategies:

  • CEO success profiles: Russell Reynolds recommends incorporating the nine attributes into an individual’s success profile and assessing succession candidates on those nine attributes.
  • Development plans: For internal CEO succession candidates, design a formal plan with real-world situations that target improvement areas. “Help candidates think through the key lessons each experience will teach,” the report said.
  • Performance reviews: Regularly review the development plan to gauge improvement.

Related CGMA Magazine content:

Five CEO Myths – and What Every Manager Can Learn From Them”: Have you seen a new CEO immediately excel? What sorts of things did a new chief executive do well? A Boston Consulting Group report takes a look at some of the myths about how CEOs should act in their first 100 days.

Boards Heavily Involved in CEO Succession Planning, but Often Delegate Duties”: Although corporate boards are frequently reviewing CEO succession plans, practices vary widely with respect to who holds primary responsibility for oversight of these plans, a survey of corporate secretaries shows. Responsibilities are split among the full board, the compensation committee and the nominating/governance committee.

Neil Amato (namato@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.

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