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Lessons from the Most Respected CEOs

Selecting the right executive is probably the single most important decision any company can make. While most companies have a formal list of CEO’s selection criteria, they often misplace the weight of each criterion when they are evaluating individual candidates.

Typically, companies engage an executive search firm and rely on it to find the right person. Many times this does not result in the success that the company anticipates. Most executive search firms will send only what they consider “safe” candidates for the company to accept. Usually, the focus is placed on criteria such as cultural fit, years of industry experience and education. While these are helpful indicators of the candidate’s abilities, our research findings has taught us that many of the criteria used to qualify the candidates are less important than what the company or the recruiters think.

Top CEOs come from many diverse personal, educational and professional backgrounds. After researching more than 1,000 CEOs of global companies, and looking at their educational and professional backgrounds, we came to the conclusion that selecting a successful CEO boils down to three criteria; the candidate’s decision-making abilities, leadership skills, and personality strengths. All other factors are less important and in some cases proven irrelevant as demonstrated by the list.

The CEO's Critical Success Factors

A multi-dimensional decision-making ability is important to enable CEOs to navigate the continuously changing internal and external forces in a complex and uncertain competitive environment. CEOs constantly evaluate and choose between alternative strategic and tactical courses of actions, while considering the decision constraints and potential risks. Our research is full of examples of CEOs who were brought from outside the company, outside the industry, and sometimes even outside the country. Their results were far superior to their predecessors, who had all the relevant operational, business and cultural information.

Leadership ability is critical to strategy execution. CEOs must be able to balance and influence the complex organizational relationships and sometimes conflicting stakeholders’ interests. Relationship management with the board, government, public, clients, employees and their power centers is a key difference between a successful and unsuccessful implementation of the business strategy. None of the researched CEOs could have succeeded or scaled their growth to a global level without acquiring and aligning the strong support of their professional networks, business partners and executive teams. Almost all CEOs attribute their success to hiring, developing or motivating top talents. Our research has examples of some of the most brilliant CEOs who failed due to their lack of relationship management skills or due to a strong opposing political environment.

Personality strengths are ambition, drive, resilience, and the ability of the executive candidate to manage extremely heavy workloads and stress. Leading a business organization is a highly competitive and demanding race. The scope of work, scale of responsibility, information overload, and number of demanding relationships can be overwhelming. Most CEOs perform well during good business conditions. Few can do well in stressful times. Even less are able to shine during a crisis.

The research of the “Most Respected CEOs” has taught us new and important lessons. The following is a partial list of the research findings that challenged the many common misconceptions about the ideal CEO’s personal and professional profiles.

  1. Culture or social background does not matter as much as most companies think. Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan Motor, and one of the most successful CEOs of all time, proved that you do not need to know the culture or speak the language to run one of the largest companies in the world. Possessing the right leadership skills can turn around an a foreign company with a foreign culture in a foreign country. It is worth noting that when Ghosn took the CEO position at Nissan he did not even speak Japanese.
  2. The profile of David Blair, CEO of Catalyst Health Inc. taught us that age and years of experience do not matter as much as most companies think. David is one of several examples of young CEOs who led their companies to very high growth levels. Catalyst Health is one of the fastest growing companies with 1,000 employees producing more than $3 billion in revenues.
  3. Paul Diaz, CEO of Kindred Healthcare Inc., Robert Dutkowsky the CEO of Tech Data, and several others taught us that a CEO's academic education does not matter as much as the recruiters think. On the other hand, professional training and experiential development is critical to the success of the CEO and the company. Contrary to popular views, most successful CEOs did not graduate from Ivy League universities; many of them do not have MBA degrees. Some of the most successful CEOs have law, technical, physics, or HR education.
  4. Christopher Connor, CEO of The Sherwin-Williams Company, and John Wren, CEO of Omnicom, taught us that hiring top talent is the ultimate competitive advantage.
  5. John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo & Company, taught us that a CEO who admits mistakes and does not sugarcoat or omit bad news is a CEO to trust.
  6. Joseph Saunders, CEO of Visa Inc., taught us that advocacy and lobbying are critical to the success of the company in a changing regulatory environment.
  7. Robert Dutkowsky, CEO of Tech Data Corporation, taught us that having good mentors at work is critical to the performance of the executive and the company.
  8. The success of David Simon, CEO of Simon Property Group, is attributed to his ability to identify and negotiate M&A opportunities as a growth strategy.
  9. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google Inc., taught us that every day brings new challenges. The CEO's job is to keep things focused.
  10. We believe the success of Tony F. Earley, CEO of DTE Energy, is attributed in a substantial part to his professional and government network.
  11. Jeffrey Joerres, CEO of Manpower Inc., taught us that it is critical for the CEO to get out of his office and meet people face to face. The CEO must stay connected with his people so that they know where the challenges lie within the organization.
  12. The lesson we learned from Matt Rubel, CEO of Collective Brands, Inc., is that the business strategy, regardless of the economic climate, is to remain focused on the consumers. They hold the key to any retailer or brand success.
  13. Michael Dan, CEO of Brinks Inc., taught us that the three top skills needed for a CEO are focus, communication skills, and stress management.
  14. The success of Timothy Manganello, CEO of BorgWarner Inc., is based on his strategy to seek technology as a competitive advantage and his ability to think and act in a global framework. This enabled him to diversify the company's portfolio of investors, products and markets which was the key to overcome the worst US economic crisis.
  15. Mike Morris, CEO of American Electric Power (AEP), taught us that motivation and encouragement is the best way to get things done through your team.
  16. The most important lesson any executive can learn from Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc., is that innovation leadership is the best value creation strategy. He also taught us that the most successful CEO is not the one who makes fewer mistakes, but the one who quickly learns from them and moves on.
  17. Muhammad Yunus, CEO of Garmeen Bank, taught us that the greatest challenge of the CEO is to change the mindset of the stakeholders, because mindsets play strange tricks on people.

About the Author

Med Jones is the president of the International Institute of Management - A best practices research and education institute. IIM provides CEO and executive support services, strategic planning retreats and custom corporate training courses for the global Fortune 1000 companies and governments.

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