Successful CEOs are leaders who inspire colleagues, customers, and investors to follow their vision as they steer the enterprise toward success. In this article, we explore some of the most desirable qualities for any CEO, from effective communication skills to the ability to learn from failure.
1. Flexibility and willingness to pivot
Pivoting can involve overhauling a venture’s entire strategy, drastically changing the structure and purpose of company. Pivoting is not for the faint-hearted, but it is important to remember that successful pivots created some of today’s biggest companies.
When it was founded in 1971, Starbucks was a rather different enterprise, selling coffee beans and espresso machines for customers to make their own coffee at home. It was not until Howard Schultz became CEO that the brand started brewing and selling coffee in European-style coffee houses—which ultimately led to the global sensation that Starbucks is today.
In business, flexibility is necessary. Markets change, customer needs evolve, new technologies disrupt the status quo, and new regulations create new opportunities or hindrances. Successful leaders realize when something isn’t working and have the flexibility to try something else. They’re determined, but they’re not married to an idea or strategy for its own sake.
Interestingly, research has found that adaptable CEOs spend significantly more time—up to half their time—thinking in the long-term. With their sights set on the horizon, rather than day-to-day minutiae, they’re able to pick up on early signals of broader changes and respond accordingly.
2. Effective communication skills
Every CEO needs strong communication skills. From motivating teams to delegating responsibilities, a CEO must both express themselves clearly and demonstrate excellent listening skills.
According to research from Navalent, great business leaders are consistently balanced and transparent in communication. They relate their view of business challenges and potential, as well as their expectations, using direct, understandable language. The study also emphasized the need to not just listen to, but actively seek out the opinions and ideas of other people and incorporate these differing viewpoints into problem-solving strategies.
3. Excellent Decision-Making Skills
The ability to think and act fast sets great leaders apart from his or her contemporaries. No one gets it right every time. Nevertheless, CEOs have to consistently make decisions quickly with conviction, sometimes in unfamiliar domains, or without complete information. According to a report from Harvard Business Review, individuals who were described as decisive were 12 times more likely to be successful CEOs.
A good CEO recognizes the need for action—that they will never have “perfect” information and that avoiding decisions can be worse than making the wrong decision. When leaders postpone decision-making in pursuit of perfection, their teams can pay a high price. Even good decisions that take too long can create bottlenecks that cause frustration and stall the enterprise.
One study revealed that, of executives who rated poorly for decisiveness, just 6% scored badly because they made decisions too quickly. Many hasty decisions can be undone, but in business, it is vital to move with the right amount of speed.
4. Accepting and learning from failure
No one likes making mistakes. However, the ability to own and learn from failure is a vital attribute in the business world. It is impossible to get anywhere in business without taking calculated risks; a CEO who has never failed has probably never won very much either.
An effective leader turns setbacks into teachable moments, recognizing that even the best-laid plans can go awry. While potentially inconvenient and costly, most mistakes are not fatal. A great CEO recognizes these moments for what they are: a prime opportunity to grow as a leader and improve the organization.
5. Empathy and emotional intelligence
The ability to read people—to understand what motivates them, and to pick up on cues that convey what they’re really feeling or what they really want—and adapt management styles accordingly is a highly desirable trait for any CEO. A smart business leader understands that if they want their company to succeed, they need to connect with people individually, as well as within groups.
6. Balancing confidence with humility
Striking the perfect balance between confidence and humility can be challenging; many people innately lean one way or the other. Leaders need to be more than a little confident—they can even be audacious. However, timing is important. Some situations call for the bold executive, while others require the leader to step back a bit and act as mediator to guide a group to its own decision.
In any case, a great CEO practices gratitude by recognizing the contributions of others. When things go wrong, they avoid shirking responsibility or pointing fingers. Effective leaders recognize that they are not perfect, and do not pretend to be. Their confidence isn’t based on some imagined sense of superiority—it is earned. They do the hard work, focus on continual improvement, and value their employees’ work.