The Top 5 Traits for CEO Success

Finding the right leader to lead an organization to success is always a challenge. The start of that process, creating the Profile of Success, always leads to a great deal of discussion and sometimes a great deal of disagreement.

As one recruiter I know says, “We always start off looking for Jesus Christ with an MBA.” Since no one does everything well, it’s important to decide what’s on the “got to have” list versus the “would be nice to have” list.

One of the things that seems to happen often is a precise listing of the 20 or more traits that the new CEO should possess, like education, experience, etc. While this is a valuable exercise, it is even more important to identify the top 5 traits/skills. If the person can’t do these things well, then the rest of the list really doesn’t matter.

Having been part of many such searches, here is my list of the top traits that predict success for CEO’s:

  1. Integrity. If leaders lack integrity (doing what they say they’ll do), then people won’t trust them. If people don’t trust them, then they won’t follow them.
  2. Passion for the mission. A CEO needs to be genuinely excited about the product or service the organization is offering in order to work as hard as is necessary to succeed big.
  3. Leadership skills. Leaders need to be able to lead. More specifically, this entails thinking strategically to create a compelling vision and inspiring people to work together to achieve that vision.
  4. Relationship building. After a few basic financial principles are being followed, sustained business success is about creating and maintaining good relationships with team mates, customers, and other stakeholders. Even a commoditized, web-based business is creating a brief relationship with customers (that hopefully is repeated).
  5. Sales and influencing skills. If you believe that business is basically about people, then the ability to get people to change their behavior becomes huge. How are you going to acquire business or get your team mates to embrace doing things a better way to be more successful if you lack these skills?

Sure, we’re missing lots of things in this list; e.g., financial skills, track record of success in a similar position, etc. but my experience is that they belong further down on the priority list. While both are important, in general, we tend to favor potential to contribute in the future over experiences in the past.

High-Performance Habits

  1. Keep in mind that nobody is good at everything–there is no such thing as a perfect CEO.
  2. Be crystal clear on the qualities that will insure success for the CEO.
  3. Prioritize those qualities, and make sure the CEO possesses the “got to haves.”
  4. Remember that if the potential CEO doesn’t possess the “got to haves,” the “nice to haves” really don’t matter.
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