Qualities to Look for in a CEO

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the pace of CEO changes is picking up again and almost 20 major companies are searching for a replacement in the top position. These include Microsoft, J.C. Penney Co. and Toys ‘R’ Us. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. has been searching since late last year to replace Lisa Gersh.

What should these search committees be looking for?

A study done by Russell Reynolds Associates found nine attributes that differentiated CEOs from other top executives. The study assessed areas like communication skills, relationship skills and decision-making approaches. These nine attributes fell into three areas: willingness to take calculated risks, bias toward action and the ability to efficiently read people.

I can agree with these attributes as being critical to those taking over management of a major company. Having hired, fired and served as a CEO for several companies, I suggest they look for CEOs who have these qualities as well.

1. A person who is willing to admit his or her mistakes

This one is so important that Chapter One of my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” is about checking your ego.

A CEO must be willing to admit his mistakes, learn from them and move on. Covering up mistakes can not only lead to bigger problems, when you are found out you risk losing the respect of all those who work for your company as well as those that do business with you.

Making mistakes is not usually the major cause of a company’s failure. It’s covering them up or adhering to the mistakes that can lead to major issues.

2. A person who isn’t afraid to hire people smarter than himself

A CEO has to be able to leverage the talents of others. When I am acting as Interim CEO I am always happy when I am surrounded by people smarter than I am. I am the catalyst to get a job done and that is easier to accomplish when the people around me are smart and capable.

3. A person who doesn’t back down from the realities of a bad situation

I devoted a chapter in my book to this as well, called “Confront Your Harsh Realities.” One of the biggest mistakes CEOs make is refusing to recognize challenging situations. Whether it’s an issue with a vendor, problem employees, financing difficulties, a changing marketplace — whatever the issue, a good CEO needs to recognize when a bad situation is brewing and be prepared to handle it.

4. A person who is proactive, not reactive

A good leader needs to head off potential problems before they occur, preventing crises if possible. If a leader is proactive he will have the people, ideas, tools and other resources in place to handle anything that comes along.

5. A person who communicates openly and regularly

A company grows and thrives on open communication in good times. And in bad times, a staff that feels fully informed about what is happening is better able to pull together and weather the harsh periods. And CEOs that keep lines of communication open across all levels in a company can learn a lot from those on the front lines.

I thought of the bias toward action attribute when I read a story about Stephen Elop, who may be Microsoft’s next CEO. According to an article on UsNews.NBCnews.com, when Stephen was a college student in the 1980s he didn’t like the data-sharing methods available. So he bought some Ethernet cable and ran 22 miles of cable around the campus from building to building, creating one of the first Internet networks in Canada.

That’s the kind of man you want leading your company.

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