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What Makes a Good CEO?

By Carrie Beckner,
business.com writer
|
Feb 19, 2020
Image Credit: aerogondo/Getty
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A good CEO can make or break a company, but what exactly separates a good CEO from a bad one?

  • In a fast-paced business landscape, unabashed, no-holds-barred creativity seems to be a requirement for CEOs who want to innovate and succeed.

  • As a leadership quality, creativity can be incredibly useful, but it isn't always the defining factor a CEO or business leader needs to flourish.

  • In fact, gauging what employees excel at and adapting accordingly — whether that's playing a more creative, analytical, or executionary role — is one of the best things a CEO can do for his or her company.

Boundless, unfettered creativity really seems to be the hallmark of an effective CEO, and many household-name business leaders are lauded for their creative, free-spirited flair.

This makes a lot of sense: When the vast majority of your day involves being the face of a company, it's important to show off your inventiveness and open-mindedness. (And hey — is it even possible to launch a company today without some sort of disruption?)

Innovation is the name of the game, and an inability to take a creative, visionary stance makes leaders seem out of touch. In the worst cases, it could even contribute to a company's failure.

Moving beyond creativity in a CEO

The importance of creativity in leadership can't be understated, and having a creative bent is certainly important for business leaders across the board. However, it isn't always the end-all, be-all trait of effective CEOs.

Having a CEO who can add a bit of innovative flourish is surely useful to a team of executives helping to steer the ship — a group of people truly able to execute on the ideas the CEO brings up in his or her day-to-day work.

In reality, though, adjusting quickly to the ever-changing nature of a business might be an even better capability for CEOs. Case in point: What if our imaginative CEO is surrounded by similarly creative executives who have trouble carrying ideas forward? The team could drive straight into the ground, and it goes without saying that the CEO's creativity would be much less valuable this time around. Even worse, CEOs who feel obligated to fill an idea-generator role (rather than focusing on what his or her team needs) might actually limit workers who are more driven to demonstrate their creative skill sets. The CEO feels forced to keep churning out ideas, and the natural creatives underneath this leader have no choice but to keep trudging along.

This happens more than we think: In its 2019 Global CEO Outlook, KPMG International notes that the vast majority of CEOs want employees to innovate and flex their creative muscles without fearing negative consequences. Unfortunately, just 56% of them say their firm's culture values "fail-fast" innovation.

There's intent, but the action isn't always there.

The power of CEO intuition

The CEOs of today should be able to shift their behavior and adapt intuitively to the skills of those around them — even if that means going against their own nature every once in a while.

Of course, making these changes can be tricky for the leader who doesn't know she should make a change. Luckily, those occupying the C-suite probably have wide-ranging career experience already.

Let's put this in perspective: Say you're at the beginning of your career. You were likely hired into your starting role because you had a specific array of skills — expertise that predicted your success in that role, specifically. As you move forward and start managing people, planning out your own tasks, being proactive, and carrying out regular duties likely isn't enough. You not only have to juggle a heftier task list, but also to coach people, demonstrate empathy, and hone your emotional intelligence.

As you move into a CEO role, then, you'll need even more people-management skills that require you to ebb and flow with your business.

Giving employees a chance for success

Armed with this insight, how can CEOs gauge the level of creativity they should contribute within their organizations? After all, predicting what firms need from leaders can be tricky — even for the folks sitting atop a corporate hierarchy.

While some members of your team will offer pie-in-the-sky ideas naturally, others might find their value in moving projects forward. Figuring out these preferences isn't as tricky as it seems: Data-oriented CEOs might start by encouraging employees to take personality or behavior and motivation tests and share their results. Whole Brain and Gallup's CliftonStrengths are both stellar options, but most other professional identity tests should work just as well in helping CEOs understand employee motivators, skills, and preferred work styles.

Another great way to glean insight on how employees feel about a teammate's personal growth and what that person could contribute to the company is through 360 reviews. CEOs might also opt for feedback on specific leadership styles rather than cold, hard performance metrics. Those responses tend to be more accurate and emotionally driven.

Despite all of these options, there's no secret recipe that reveals exactly what a CEO needs to be for his company. Most times, the best way to discern what employees really need is to make an effort to understand them.

In the meantime, CEOs can take a few small steps within their firms to ensure employees have the space to grow their personal skills. Business leaders looking to foster creativity in the workplace (as well as other hidden talents) can start here:

1. Give others the opportunity to speak up

Sometimes, the best way to help others grow to their fullest potential is by letting them take center stage. CEOs looking to allow employees to have more say in the day-to-day, therefore, might make a habit of speaking last. Everyone should have their say without feeling swayed by leadership's opinions.

Asking questions is another easy but incredibly effective way to get this insight. Asking simple questions — even “What do you think?” — is a great way to encourage others to speak up.

2. Test out new opportunities

As mentioned earlier, testing hypotheses is a great opportunity to gain valuable insight — especially when it comes to giving others the ability to show off their skills.

Let's say you've constantly given your chief financial officer a "grab-the-numbers" assignment. Next time around, you might ask him to rethink a specific part of the financial process — perhaps forecasting around a new structure your company wants to try. Was he able to complete this task? Did he request anyone else's help to carry it out? When it's all said and done, did the CFO enjoy the new challenge and feel good about his solution?

All of this can help determine whether he might be a good fit for other similarly minded projects (and how he views his own capabilities).

3. Recognize the pressure you're under and act accordingly

It goes without saying that CEOs face an incredible amount of pressure not just from company employees, but also from customers or clients and other stakeholders. The expectation is to get the right things done in the right way.

In the past, this pressure probably revolved around keeping the company sustainable and afloat. Now, firms have much more responsibility all around: Leaders aren't only tasked with meeting the numbers. They also have to employ happy people, make the world a brighter place, and keep ethics top of mind.

This leadership role involves adjusting to a constantly shifting target on all fronts, and doing so can be incredibly stressful. According to data from Harvard Business School, the average CEO is nothing short of a workaholic, logging about 10 hours every weekday and devoting a significant amount of weekend and vacation time to work.

So what does all of this mean for the leader who wants to become a better CEO and encourage employees to express newfound skills? Here, the most important thing to remember is to lean on others. You don't have to achieve every company goal single-handedly, but you should be sure that the people around you can follow the right path and chase the right goals. No one person is ultimately accountable.

So even though employee feedback gives you an idea of how you're performing, ask yourself this: Are you really happy with the role you're playing? By empowering your employees to take initiative and develop the skills they're excited about — and molding your leadership to what your employees need — you're well on your way to success.

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Carrie Beckner
Carrie Beckner
See Carrie Beckner's Profile
Carrie Beckner is the enterprise circle orchestrator at Pariveda Solutions, a consulting firm driven to create innovative, growth-oriented, and people-first solutions. Carrie works primarily within organizational structure, management, and interpersonal relationships at Pariveda Solutions, where she’s been for more than a decade. Her portfolio includes leading Pariveda's event management circle and assisting Pariveda's CEO by assessing the workflows of activities throughout the enterprise and mapping out potential changes to increase effectiveness. Carrie is also trained in Holacracy, a radical organizational system for companies that favors decentralized structures and self-governance. She holds a Certified Holacracy Coach certification through HolacracyOne. Outside the office, Carrie is an avid traveler, music lover, and foodie. She also dedicates time to her community by volunteering with Dallas CASA, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of at-risk children and leads discipleship trips.
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