The 4 qualities of successful CEOs

CEO and employees in a meeting

As the business environment changes, so must its leaders. And one area where we’ve seen significant change is at the level of the CEO.

This is evident not only in how an incoming CEO may approach their transition into a new role, but the enduring traits they demonstrate throughout their tenure. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to identifying a successful CEO, but there are common leadership behaviours that today’s best CEOs consistently demonstrate. We’ve been recruiting CEO’s and C-Suite roles for almost 2 decades – that is a long time to observe how the landscape has evolved when it comes to the C-Suite.  Our observations, along with the wider national and global research have interesting and maybe surprising insights.  Let’s take a look at a summary. 

1. Decisiveness 

Decisiveness isn’t about making great decisions all the time — after all, no leader can avoid making mistakes. However, successful leaders consistently show a focus on making swift, clear decisions with conviction. According to ghSMART’s CEO Genome® Project's latest data and insights, successful CEOs maintain that focus even in the face of incomplete information and contexts that are evolving rapidly. 

Successful CEOs don’t always wait to receive “complete” data before they decide, because obviously that might never happen. They are able to synthesize information quickly and still make sound decisions in the face of ambiguity. Successful CEOs understand at a deep level that speed is crucial to strategic success, and a less-than-great decision is better than no decision at all.

This isn’t to suggest that they make those decisions alone, without external input. In fact, successful CEOs show a pattern of active consultation with others before they make decisions. They also commonly pause during that process to consider whether the decision would be better made by someone else who has different knowledge or expertise than they do. Either way, once the decision is made, they move on it without hesitation.

2. Soft skills and communication

Successful CEOs make an ongoing practice of deftly engaging the Board and other stakeholders with business results. To do that, they need excellent social (or “soft”) skills — capabilities that were included by the World Economic Forum among its top 10 skills in demand within organisations in 2023. It rated empathy, active listening, leadership and social influence as the most critical skills for working with others, and we see them clearly embodied by the great CEOs we work with.

For example, successful CEOs routinely put energy and effort into understanding stakeholders’ goals, concerns and personal styles, and they dedicate time to strategising in order to gain buy-in from each individual. In this process of consultative collaboration, they actively and calmly navigate conflict and tough decisions.  

This approach to engagement has a strong corollary effect: we find that the best calibre of CEOs commonly gain respect for their commitment to leading the team to success, rather than trying to be likable or to protect teams from difficult choices.

3. Adaptability

The ability to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances may seem a natural part of CEO success, and of course these executives need to be able to continuously work with conditions they’ve never encountered before. Yet the question of how a CEO adapts is crucial. 

A key part of business adaptation is to maintain a long-term focus. Successful CEOs dedicate around half their time to the long-game, usually keeping abreast of wide networks of information in the process. This helps them to develop a strong sense of the changes arising outside of their industry, as well as within, that may impact their organisation. They’re then well-positioned to take full advantage of those changes as they steer the business onwards. 

In addition, their adaptability extends to leadership adaptability, and being able to flex their style when in front of different audiences.

4. Resilience and consistency

A successful CEO doesn’t just demonstrate great performance: they demonstrate it consistently. A track record of reliable performance should be more sought-after than a one-off case of outperformance because, of course, the CEO needs to deliver ongoing wins, not just one or two.

At the core, a strong CEO needs to embed the culture of accountability. Strong planning cycles, measuring performance through meaningful metrics, and teams that are accountable are fundamentals to consistently delivering results. When an ELT has this type of culture, they are more equipped to deliver consistently and ride the waves of changing market conditions.  

PWC’s 26th Annual Global CEO Survey revealed some interesting data on their teams: more than half of CEOs surveyed felt that the leaders in their business wouldn’t tolerate small failures, nor often make strategic decisions independently, while 43% worked with leaders who wouldn’t encourage debate. How do we interpret this data?  

Building resilience throughout changing market conditions requires executives to present and test new ideas. We have to innovate. The data suggests that resilient and consistently performing organisations have a culture where ideation, healthy constructive debate and the psychological safety that goes with it leads to the ability to ride waves of market conditions and disruption.  The culture of finding new ways to create value starts with the board and CEO. 

Hiring a successful CEO

Identifying the right CEO for your organisation from a number of candidates who might look great on paper — and be great in person — is a challenge. Hiring mistakes have the potential to be costly not just in terms of opportunity costs and bottom lines, but in terms of staff turnover and market reputation, too. 

That’s why working with an Executive Search team that has a strong track record of successful CEO hires is critical — we can mean the difference between a good hire and a really great one.

If you would like us to assist you in finding your next CEO, please contact us via the link below and our Executive Search team will be touch for a confidential discussion. 

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