These 5 Skills Are What It Takes to Become a CEO (And Stay There)

I have had a few C’s on my resume over the years: CFO, CEO, and even Chairman of the Board. From that perch, I have observed many capable middle and senior managers seek the “corner office” by demonstrating their management abilities, but without the understanding that most enterprises are over-managed and under-led.

In the words of John Kotter: Managers deal with complexity, leaders with change.

Many ambitious managers confuse the move to the C-suite with the trappings of the roles, be it salary, perks, or a reserved parking slot at HQ. But C-suite leadership requires a substantively different mindset than does functional management. While management is about execution, leadership is about assembling the resources to create the future. Having the skills to help others embrace wise change is the magic and the art of great leaders.

By nature, people resist change; so, to recruit their input and to become change agents themselves, budding C-suite executives should work on developing five key skills and mindsets:

1. Wisdom

A leader needs the ability to see into the future and have a sense of what it all means, to understand the implication of things, and to figure out how the organization will get to a new and better place. The ability to see second- and third-order consequences and to anticipate outcomes is often a leader’s most distinguishing capability. As with each of these areas, practice is difficult, but not impossible. Be deliberate about predicting longer-term consequences and you will refine your abilities to distill the most predictive variables.

2. Competence

A leader needs to understand i) the organization and its values, ii) the marketplace and what it values, and iii) the competition and its advantages and vulnerabilities. Effective business leaders know something about trade-offs, resource allocation, sales and marketing, finance, operations and the law. While managers need to be good at analysis, those in the C-suites more often need to be good at synthesis. But they must know enough about the constituent elements of a decision to approve its execution. To know is one thing; to do is another. So, on your way to a C-level position, the best thing you can do is to deliver durable results. This will hone your knowledge of what it takes to achieve objectives and refine your sense of interdependencies.

3. Communication

Because leaders are about the future, nothing will predict outcomes better than the people who make up the organization. This means that leaders not only must become good at putting a team together, but in coaching, correcting and, sometimes, changing out team members. At Trammell Crow Company, we used to say we looked for “brains and heart,” claiming we could then provide any needed tools and experience. This meant developing the ability to give clear, specific and regular feedback – in other words, to hold difficult conversations. Indeed, a leader’s “brand” is built one conversation at a time – often listening without an agenda – simply to capture what others are saying until they’re satisfied you’ve understood.

4. Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

John C. Maxwell summarizes the journey from individual producer to leader as a “mind shift from me to we.” Business is a team sport. Those who reach executive management for the sake of their own ego will eventually stumble. In working to overcome my producer-only mindset, I developed 3 mantras that have helped me over the years. When I’m under pressure, I still remind myself: “It’s not about me.” “I am not my emotions.” “I have all I need.” These 3 reminders help me get my bearings again so I can think about what I’m solving for and how I can remove obstacles for the team to accomplish its mission.

5. Service

Many aren’t naturally wired for service. But taking on the characteristics of being a servant leader is not just one route to the top. It’s the most reliable way to stay there. Because servant-leaders reflect praise and absorb blame, people gravitate to them, particularly when the chips are down and they need someone to trust.

Finally, a note about charisma. While many leaders have it, it is at best a mixed blessing. Many naturally charismatic people are also burdened with a need to please, a need to be liked. This can get in the way of making the tough calls that must be made from the C-suite. Leaders can’t afford to put being liked above being respected and above achieving important goals. If a leader helps others achieve their goals, s/he’ll not only be respected, but will eventually also be liked.

As John Deere executives said of their CEO as the company moved from an also-ran to International Harvester to the industry leader: “He made us realize how good we were.” Hewitt – and a lot of other C-suite executives – achieved this by being intentional about developing these 5 key skills and mindsets.

By Joel Peterson
Chairman, Jet Blue

|INC