Having the right CEO can do wonders for a business. More than anyone, they act as the company’s living business cards, as well as portray its vision, culture and goals through their actions. Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between what boards think makes for an ideal CEO and what actually leads to high performance in that role. As a result, the wrong people are appointed, and the company suffers.
That’s the conclusion of a 10-year study entitled the CEO Genome Project. The goal of the project was to identify the specific attributes that differentiate high-performing CEOs. To do so, the researchers looked at over 17,000 assessments of C-suite executives, including 2,000 CEOs, which provided insight into their career history, business results, and behavioural patterns.
The results show that the criteria boards use to select a CEO aren’t necessarily the ones that indicate good performance in the role. For example, while an excellent education may help impress the board, among the reviewed CEO’s educational pedigree was in no way correlated to performance. “Only 7% of the high-performing CEOs we studied had an undergraduate Ivy League education, and 8% of them didn’t graduate from college at all,” the researchers state in an article on Harvard Business Review.
Additionally, high confidence more than doubles a candidate’s chances of being chosen as CEO. Yet according to the study it provides no advantage in performance on the job. “In other words, what makes candidates look good to boards has little connection to what makes them succeed in the role,” the researchers conclude.
So what does make a good CEO? After assessing all the data, the researchers identified four specific behaviours successful chief executives tend to demonstrate.
1. Deciding with speed and convictionHigh-performing CEOs do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions; rather, they stand out for being more decisive. They make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction. People who were described as “decisive” were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs, the study shows.
2. Engaging for impactStrong performers balance an understanding of their stakeholders’ needs and motivations, and then get people on board by driving them towards performance and aligning them around the goal of value creation.
3. Adapting proactivelyHighly adaptable CEOs look ahead and use wide networks and diverse sources of data to find relevance in information that may at first seem unrelated to their businesses. As a result, they sense change earlier and make strategic moves to take advantage of it.
4. Delivering reliablyThe researchers identify the ability to reliably produce results as “possibly the most powerful of the four essential CEO behaviours”. CEO candidates who scored high on reliability were twice as likely to be picked for the role and 15 times more likely to succeed in it.
Per the researchers own admittance, the behaviours may seem deceptively simple. The key, however, is to practice all four, all the time, with "manicacal consistency". To find out how you rank you can take a 5-minute assessment here.
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