What makes a CEO exceptional?

The crème de la crème de la crème?   

It's one thing to separate the wheat from the chaff, but quite another to stand out in a field of exceptional people. Still, year after year some do inch their way above the parapet.  In the Olympic Games the best athletes in the world are often separated by fractions of seconds and in the business world, the gaps between the very best are no different.

So, what makes a CEO exceptional?

Chief Executive Officer

Well, we're not the first to ask...Mckinsey and Company have just published their own findings and it makes for exceptional reading.

They surveyed and analysed over 600 top flight CEOs between the years 2014 and 2017 and then set their fields on the top six percent.

The first thing their survey discovered was that there was no real clear winner between inside and outside jobs.  Over 45% of the elites on their list were outsiders brought in to take charge of a whole new vessel, while 55% were old hands and had worked their way up.

There did seem to be a trend amongst the newcomers suggesting that CEOs appointed from the outside were a better fit for an organisation which had been struggling prior to the new appointments.  Those who came from within the organisation, however, seemed to be the more logical choice for a firm which was doing OK.

Strategic Planning

Another common trait of exceptional CEOs was the commissioning of a strategic review.  Almost 60% of the best performing CEOs in Mckinsey and Co's study opted for a strategic review early in their tenure.  It makes sense that a new leader bring themselves up to speed with their company.  After all, no matter how well we think we're doing, without the facts we are coasting at best.  Making changes though... well, that's a different matter.  Despite the majority of the survey undertaking a review within the first two years almost none of them make any significant changes until those 24 months had passed.  We can assume that this is partially down the nature of strategic reviews and how long they can take to prepare, but there must also be some degree of caution involved too.

Change is better than a rest...

One might imagine that after 24 months of the status quo, our elite CEOs shunned change, but you'd be wrong.  Change is another constant among those studied and if anything it is their willingness to make dramatic shifts in their firm's future which elevates them into the top 5%.  Performance was seldom a factor in their decisions either, and CEOs of high performing firms were just as likely as those in the midst of turning theirs around to implement new procedures, protocols and modus operandi.

In the big picture, the best CEOs are clearly those who have the vision to take their firm apart and to put it back together in a leaner, smarter and more productive manner.  If there's one take away the study offers us, it's that there's a difference between moving quickly and making rash decisions.  Exceptional CEOs excel at the former but have little time for the latter.

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About the Author

ALAN is CEO of CD as well as a qualified executive coach and a seasoned business mentor. He challenges progressive business people to step-up & realise their vision.

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