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As the CEO, you are the one being end-responsible. And as you succeed or fail, so does your organization. As the COO, CFO, CMO, CIO or CTO, not to forget the CHRO and others, you occupy the most powerful position in your domain. Sitting on one of those desired chairs with which comes the largest circle of influence. The one chair with the final say on strategy. The one chair allowing you to making the highest-stake decisions.

In return for all this responsibility, C-level executives do get the most interesting compensation plan within the organization. Right? But how do you get there? Is it about know-how? Is it about technical or functional knowledge? Demonstrating leadership? Business skills? Overall talent? Execution skills? Communication? Building the right team? Charisma? Creativity?

Several studies, amongst which the ones by Kaplan, Klebanov, and Sørensen and by ghSMART, led to the assessment of 30 traits related to CEO performance. Their findings let us conclude that there are four critical factors that might be speeding up or slowing down your ticket to the C-suite.

Curious on how to get there faster? Let’s take a deeper dive.


1. General ability

Successful C-level executives are proactive, fast, aggressive, persistent, persuasive, enthusiastic, flexible, creative, organized, calm and respectful. They have high standards, work efficient, uphold commitments and hold their people accountable. They have large networks, hire only the best and remove underperformers without hesitation. They have high work ethics, integrity and a strong strategic vision. Their attention to detail is combined with their analytical skills and brainpower. They have good listening skills, are open to criticism and recognize the importance of teamwork.

You could say, to be successful in the C-suite, it helps if you are good at a lot of things. Having said that, the same researchers concluded that being proactive is one of the most important traits, making the largest contribution to general ability. No action, no success. Let me add this. In order to remain competent and effective, it is important for leaders to keep an eye on their own strengths and performance. It is not what brought you here that will bring you there tomorrow. So don’t be proactive with your business if you aren’t with yourself.


2. Execution

Execution, represented by the ability to be proactive, efficient, aggressive and persistent, is named by the researchers as the second factor that differentiates the good C-level executive from the mass. They set goals and follow up on them. They are flexible on input though constantly measure their output results. They hold their people accountable and coach, redeploy or remove the underperformers within a maximum period of 6 months. It might not come as a surprise that the researchers did find a negative correlation between execution and interpersonal skills, pointing at e.g. dimensions as respect, being open to criticism, teamwork, listening, etc. Can we simply say that having to make tough decisions, often under time pressure, doesn’t necessarily makes you the nicest one in the room?

You’d better not be afraid to step on some toes if you want to make it to the top. Does this mean you can be a one-person player? Absolutely not. No one can succeed on his or her own. What I promote is the principle of Leading without rank. Build a team, lead a team, work collegially. Leaders of today must be less self-oriented. Accessible. Taking care of their teams. Developing them. Preventing them from burn-out. Courageous but humble. Give your team the opportunity to grow.


3. Charisma

Charisma links to enthusiasm, persuasiveness, moving fast, being proactive and aggressive. The researchers concluded that the most charismatic leaders are often not the most analytical ones, or the ones with the most attention to detail. Sounds logic, doesn’t it? Organizations today are looking for inspirational and authentic leaders. Preferably someone that has proven to be able to lead an organization through tough times. Someone that has proven to successfully manage conflict. Leadership skills overpower technical skills nowadays. Organizations want people that are able to lead the organization towards a higher level of performance. Inspiring. Taking charge. Building trust.

It is important not to overestimate this whole idea of charisma. There has been an interesting publication by Rakesh Khurana, named “The irrational quest for charismatic CEOs”, claiming that boards focus too much on charisma and therefore are not only limiting the number of candidates, but also allow the extroverts to take up most of the power (and compensation). Interesting read if you are an introvert leader with ambition. In favor of the more charismatic CEOs on the other hand, they do get their organization to be committed to a shared vision of success easier and do increase the identity strength of their organization faster. If you are more introverted, deepen yourself into the power of communication and get a closer look at efficient stakeholder management. Persuasion and presentation skills can be trained.


4. Creativity and strategy

We are talking about creativity, brainpower, analytical skills, etc. Apart from the fact that C-level executives do need to understand the importance of technological savvy and the opportunities this is creating for them growing their business in the future, this is not about attention to detail or being the most organized (often on the contrary). It is about being able to communicate the bigger picture and therefore inspire others and drive innovation throughout the company. The growing globalization asks for a leader that is able to think strategically whilst navigating global challenges. We need leaders with this global outlook and preferably international experience, not in the least with culture specific behavior.

It may come as no surprise that CEOs were found to be the strongest in all four areas. Although technical skills remain the baseline requirement, there are challenges left for many CFO in terms of charisma and strategy/creativity. COOs showed more charisma than CFOs but were found to be weaker in strategy and creativity.

What are your thoughts? On your way to the boardroom yet?

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About the author

Being a certified executive and personal coach, Sofie Varrewaere is associated to the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching team and owner of the global executive coaching practice BigFish4.me. As a behavioural expert she has many years of experience working with the top layer of several multinational organizations. Her passions include playing her quarter grand piano and messing around with acrylic paint on large sized linen canvas. When she’s not catching some proverbial Big Fish, you’ll probably find her in her daily boxing class or in the swimming pool. She is luckiest doing what she does best, challenging others and herself to perform at their best