The nine secrets of successful CEOs

CEO
By Nicola Sinclair, CA Today

7 March 2016

Nicola Sinclair finds out the secrets to being successful at the very top of the business ladder.

Every individual brings their own unique perspective to a business, and CEOs are no exception.

Where one business leader might steer his or her company to greatness through strong authority and visionary ideas (kudos, Steve Jobs) another will inspire brilliance in others through their own personal charm (hello, Richard Branson).

Yet while there is no winning formula for an effective Chief Executive, many do share certain core skills and attributes that mark them out as leaders in their field.

We asked top executive headhunter Judy Wagner CA of FWB Park Brown for her Chief Exec checklist.

1. Clear vision

A good CEO has a clear vision for the business but balances that with the flexibility to take advantage of potential new opportunities. Their strategy is clear, but not fixed.

2. Builds relationships

A strong customer and client focus is essential, as is the ability to effectively manage stakeholders, the Board and suppliers.

3. Ego in check

A CEO should be willing to work hard and lead by example – they won’t ask others to do something they wouldn’t do. They are decisive but willing to take others’ views on board and ask for help when they need it.

4. Champions people

CEOs should surround themselves with people who are as bright – or brighter – than they are. They’ll recruit the right people then help them get on.

5. Builds a positive working culture

The ideal business culture is not nice and easy, but it is positive and supportive. It pushes people to do their best but does not allocate blame. The CEO is crucial to setting that tone.

6. See the gaps

Nobody can be perfect at everything, and it takes real strength of character for a CEO to assemble an executive team that plugs any gaps in their own experience.

7. Works for the business

When executives start playing politics, there’s trouble ahead. A CEO should follow the business strategy, not their own personal agenda.

8. Ethics matter

Particularly in the post-recession market, a company’s top executives should be honest, authentic and genuine, with a strong sense of ethical business values.

9. Inspires

Positivity is a powerful force, and a Chief Executive should inspire people to go the extra mile. They should lead with authority but remain considerate of their team.

Through their paces

Of course, the challenge lies in separating the candidates who can only ‘talk the talk’ from the genuine business leaders who will steer a company to greatness. Judy likens the interview process to a jigsaw puzzle: “It’s all about putting the pieces together to build a complete picture of the prospective candidate,” she says.

“Some recruiters find psychometric testing useful in analysing whether a candidate will be the right ‘fit’, but it’s really just one tool. At the other end of the scale it can be tempting to go with your personal intuition about a person, and that’s fine to an extent, but it’s crucial that you back that up by going through a rigorous recruitment process.

“This involves a very thorough interview with plenty of probing questions that go beyond the basic scope of the CV, followed by lots of referencing – both formal and informal – to get confirmation of the skills the candidate tells you they possess.”

Internal promotions

Judy recommends sticking to this process even when there’s a strong internal candidate for the post.

“It’s important to still go through the full process, and you may want to consider bringing in an external search firm to add a layer of objectivity.

"At the end of the day, if you appoint your internal candidate you want them to know that they came through the same rigorous process as everyone else and were genuinely found to be the strongest. That way, all parties can move forward with confidence. If the internal candidate turns out not to be the best of the bunch, they’ll take comfort in the fact that they were treated fairly. Honesty and transparency is the key.”

Team spirit

While a successful CEO will have natural leadership qualities, Judy warns against appointing someone who is too egocentric or ambitious: a CEO is one part of a winning team.

“It’s vital that whoever is in charge is doing what’s best for the business, and not playing politics to advance their own agenda,” she says.

“Any good leader will confirm that you’re only as good as the people around you. You have to inspire people through example. If you come charging out of the trenches alone, you’re not going to win the war.”


Professional development courses

At ICAS, we work with BPP and CIMA to offer a range of face to face and online courses across the UK to develop your skills, including courses on how to be a successful manager and adding strategic value as an accountant. Find out more on all our available courses.

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