What is the formula for success at the executive level? Over the years, our executive search firm has assisted many chief executives in the difficult task of adding a new executive to the team. These days, technical, functional and industry knowledge are considered table stakes, with softer skills being the determining factor in the hiring process.
Drawing from our experience, we’ve identified nine personality traits CEOs demand from their team. This checklist may seem daunting, but therein lays the point: While many aspire to be executives – perhaps possessing some of the necessary characteristics – few possess the full package. The absence of even one of these elements can undermine success for the individual as well as the team.
At a minimum, this checklist should provide aspiring, new and even experienced executives with a helpful guide for developing into the sort of leader and team player CEOs are looking for.
1. Focus: Do less with less
Executives often feel pressured to do more with less. However, it may be smarter to do less with less. Executives should consider laundry lists of “priorities” and “make-work” projects to be relics of the past. Instead of spreading themselves thin, today’s executives must be strategic, resourceful and creative, focusing on seeing a shorter list of priorities through to completion. In other words, doing a few things expertly is preferable to doing many things sloppily.
2. Intelligence: Stay sharp and strategic
The closer one gets to the executive suite, the more nebulous and complex issues become. Executives who fail often do so because they rely too heavily on their technical or functional expertise and have little to contribute in terms of strategic, lateral and creative problem solving. By the same token, those who excel are able to approach any given issue from a variety of angles. They accomplish this both by asking questions and being motivated by friendly competition.
3. Maturity: Control your emotions
In the c-suite, being able to manage yourself is every bit as important as being able to manage resources, relationships and initiatives. The reason? When faced with a stressful or trying situation, the key to success — or cause of failure — often has less to do with the magnitude of the problem than the fortitude of the problem solver. The individuals who conduct themselves professionally, not just when things are good but when things are not, end up being ones chief executives want to be — and stay — surrounded with.
4. Courage: Be confident and secure
Don’t be a “yes” person. Chief executives expect team members to freely and confidently challenge the status quo, question strategy and offer their own views. Astute CEOs understand that executives who are overly careful in maintaining team unity, or who enter team meetings intent on simply uncovering what the leader wants, end up hurting the team’s performance. The best executives tactfully and daringly spark healthy debate and negotiate an outcome without forcing their opinions onto the group.
5. Humility: Check your ego at the door
While courage is important and rewarded, ego can be destructive. Once considered acceptable, “big” personalities that are forceful, strong-headed, self-centred or generally uncaring are less frequently tolerated around the executive table. Though sometimes tolerated in the short term, ego-driven insensitivity is usually a primary cause of an executive’s failure and departure. To be received well, new executives must be humble, taking time to acclimatize to the team and the environment.
6. Optimism: Be helpful and constructive
As campy as it sounds: the best executives are positive, optimistic and helpful. They are the first to lend a hand and offer support to colleagues. They do not drain energy from a room, even when the discussion is contentious. They recognize the difference between healthy citations of past errors and destructive references to old skeletons. When the error is theirs, they take responsibility. When it is their peers’, they rally alongside their colleague to resolve the matter.
7. Integrity: Remain on high ground
Individuals who act inappropriately or cause others to undermine key organizational values or rules of conduct send the wrong signals to staff. As such, most CEOs consider unethical behaviour, especially at the executive level, unacceptable — if not for moral reasons than for the long-term health and success of the firm. In other words, maintaining a moral compass is not merely an individual ethical matter; it tends to be a non-negotiable personality trait for getting into — and staying in — the c-suite.
8. Passion: Be committed
Successful executives exude and model a sense of purpose. How that passion and commitment is manifested varies from individual to individual, but it is without a doubt present. With the best interests of the organization in mind and the success of the group a priority, skilled executives freely seek critiques, opinions and help from colleagues. The result is increased communication, more informed and transparent debates and, ultimately, better decisions.
9. Balance: embrace outside interests
Today’s executives are frequently pulled in every direction. The list of competing demands is long: leap from team leader to team player, deal with crises and mind the shop, drive change and find cost savings, work hard and work smart, focus on the team and focus on the stakeholders. The solution? Stop being proud of working 18-hour days. Find interests outside of the workplace. The well-rounded executive has perspective, and perspective is crucial when making decisions in the boardroom.
This article originally appeared on February 11, 2015, in Financial Post’s “Leadership” section.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Michael Naufal and Jim Harmon are Managing Partners of Boyden global executive search in Toronto and Ottawa. For additional information, contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jim at email@example.com.