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7 habits of the successful CEO

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Whether you head up a workforce of one (yourself) or of 100,000, there are as many different management models as there are businesses. But here are some actions that good leaders consistently take.

They prepare.

“The best leaders get organized,” says Joy Taylor, CEO of TayganPoint Consulting Group, which specializes in issues of business transformation and process improvement. “They have an organized way of looking at the day and making sure they leave themselves with thinking time.”

That’s important because a good CEO is self-taught, not born.

“We’re not instant answer generators,” she says.

That sense of organization should structure all contact with employees, customers, vendors and prospects.

“I used to work for a meticulous CEO who’d begin every meeting with, ‘Here’s what we’re going to cover today,’” says Taylor. “It imparted in his audience a sense of confidence and assurance that he had the material covered and that they had direction.”

They listen.

“Keep listening intently to your managers, to their reports, to people you trust, to your customers, to the rank and file,” says Stephane Bourque, who has been president and CEO of Vancouver, Canada-based Incognito Software Systems since 1992 and was a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Award for British Columbia. “Listening will let you know if your message is getting across, if your vision is understood and if what you get from your managers is really being adopted across the entire company.”

They let go.

You can’t do everything, so you’ve hired good people to do what they do best. Giving up some control was a little daunting, but you did it. Or did you?

Delegating isn’t the same as letting go, Taylor says. You can delegate tasks but continue to look over the shoulders of your people and second-guess every important decision.

“Great CEOs have learned to let go of something,” she says. “They’ve learned to hire top talent and they’re not responsible for all of the choices made under that individual. If you’re still second-guessing decisions, you didn’t hire the right person.”

However, if you’re always concluding that you hired wrong, perhaps the onus is on you. Do a critical self-appraisal. Do you have the ability to truly delegate authority?

They accommodate failure.

That’s not the same as accepting failure. It’s just a realization that failure happens, and it will knock you down a notch. But you can (and will) get right back up and continue on your way — even if it’s with a slight limp.

Thomas Edison famously spoke of his lack of frustration at his many failed attempts to invent the incandescent light bulb.

“I haven’t failed,” he said. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Perhaps less famously he also stated, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

In his new book, “Moonshot! Game-Changing Strategies to Build Billion-Dollar Businesses,” former Apple CEO John Sculley writes how failure is literally not an option for business leaders in Germany, Japan, South Korea and many other leading industrial nations. If they get it wrong, their careers are over.

It’s that uniquely American “permission to fail” concept that draws technology talent from afar, he says in his book.

“What’s the unique attraction of Silicon Valley? It’s the learning experience and the permission to fail — without penalty; to just recycle the experience back into another opportunity. I can’t stress this attitude enough.”

As Sculley further writes in “Moonshot!” “The key is to manage risk, to always have a Plan B, and learn from your mistakes. Most of all, learn from your failures. They will prove to be your most precious teachers in your life.”

Beyond merely giving yourself permission to fail, allow others to do the same. Innovation and creativity can only reign if your people are unafraid of the repercussions of trying the untried. Trust and nurture your people, and let their mistakes serve as valuable examples of ways that won’t work.

At Incognito Software Systems, Bourque has instilled a company culture that encourages risk-takers. “We can criticize each other’s work, but not each other,” he says. “I try to leave them with the message, ‘if we broke something, let’s fix it.’ I don’t look over their shoulder, and I’ve never fired anyone.”

The software engineer started his company with a workforce of three. That’s grown to 114 and includes five employees who have been with Bourque for more than 20 years.

They make sure it’s always about the customer.

“Without them, you don’t have a company,” says Bourque. “Do all you can to anticipate what they’ll need before they know they need it — but keep in mind that no one knows their mind better than the customer.”

In Moonshot! author Sculley introduces the adaptive innovator as a new breed of entrepreneur who puts the customer first.

“For innovative adaptors … it’s the customer plan, not the business plan that’s important,” he writes.

He describes the metrics of a customer plan as including “the rate of customer engagement and re-engagement; the conversion rate for customer engagement and re-engagement; the conversion rate from customer engagement to becoming a transacting customer; the scoring of customer satisfaction; the cost of customer acquisition; creative churn rate; the effectiveness of the cycle of customer management; the retention rate of a customer; and the lifetime value of a customer.”

It couldn’t be a more customer-centric plan.

They keep learning.

The business of being a business leader is never finished. It’s not like a field of study in which you get a diploma or certificate to signify completion. Successful managers are always learning more about their customers, business trends and forecasts, and the developments of new or improved products or services to take the company to the next level.

“The book I give everybody is ‘Mindset,’ by Carol Dweck,” says Bourque.

“Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” was written by a Stanford University psychologist who, after decades of research, identified key ways of motivating achievement.

For Taylor, “The Go-Giver,” by Bob Burg and John David Mann, is particularly memorable. Taylor describes the lesson of the book as, “It never hurts anyone when you are authentic.”

She also recommends the “Ted Talk on How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” by Simon Sinek, available on YouTube.

They lead by example.

Whether leaders are good or bad, every one of them leads by example. Strong company cultures are built upon the personality traits and leadership style of their CEOs. Yours can become a company where great work is nurtured and appreciated and celebrated. And then there are leaders who exhibit other traits, and they will make an equal impression on their employees and their company’s culture.

“One boss singlehandedly provided me with an example of management style I’ll never forget,” says Taylor. “She never missed an opportunity to beat her people down, to point out their mistakes and stay critical at all times. That stayed with me and, hopefully, made me an entirely different kind of leader.”

The point is, whatever your leadership style, you’re setting an example. The quality of that example is up to you, so you may as well make is a good one.