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  • Writer's pictureRalph Spangenberg

Want to become a Chief Executive Officer? See your executive coach and learn these 4 skills

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

Being a successful business person isn’t about always making the right decisions. Researchers have found the keys to being a successful chief executive — and they have nothing to do with looks or education.

The findings are the results of a 10-year study, called the Chief Executive Officer Genome Project, conducted by researchers at a Chicago-based consulting firm. With assistance from economists at the University of Chicago and Copenhagen Business School and analysts from data management firm SAS Inc., the study identified key traits that most of the world’s successful Chief Executive Officers share using data on more than 2,000 Chief Executive Officer candidates across all major industries.

One of the major findings of the study was, that only 7% of the 6 million Chief Executive Officers in the U.S. attended an Ivy League-caliber university, and 8% didn’t even graduate from college. In other words, the stereotype of the extroverted, well-educated and good-looking Chief Executive Officer doesn’t necessarily make for a successful business leader.

Executive Coach Ralph Spangenberg: Just because someone has the pedigree and experience doesn’t mean they will succeed in the Chief Executive Officer role.

Just because someone has the pedigree and experience doesn’t mean they will succeed in the Chief Executive Officer role.

That said, the Chief Executive Officer candidates studied as part of the project didn’t necessarily have spotless records — 45% of them had experienced some sort of career setback. More than three-quarters of those people ended up getting the top job. So, keep in mind: You get tested constantly in the Chief Executive Officer role and it helps if it’s not the first time you’ve been tested in the corporate version of a life-or-death scenario.

Encouragingly for those looking to work their way up the corporate ladder, the skills that successful Chief Executive Officers tend to share aren’t ones that come innately. If you’re a college graduate, the single most important thing to know is that you can learn all of these four behaviors to some degree. Depending on what industry you choose to go into, some of these skills may be more important than others. And while the researchers found that more than half of the high-performing Chief Executive Officers studied were adept at more than one of them, acing all of them isn’t necessary:

1. Under-promise and over-deliver

Far and away, reliability is the most sought-after of all the skills uncovered through the Chief Executive Officer Genome Project. Of all the highly-qualified Chief Executive Officer candidates that the researchers looked at, 94% received high marks for consistency. And these job seekers were two times more likely to get the job and 15 times more likely to thrive in it. Set the expectations. So: Don’t wait for the goal to be set by myriad stakeholders, they are very unlikely to share the same goals. Go for your own goals and under-promise and over-deliver.

2. Make fast decisions with conviction

Decision-making is key for business leaders — but making a fast decision is typically valued more by boards of directors. A slow decision maker can hamper a business’ progress. This is the decision-making model that Jeff Bezos described in his annual shareholder letter by comparing “Day 1” and “Day 2” companies. “Day 2 companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly,” he wrote. “To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions…Speed matters in business — plus a high-velocity decision making environment is more fun too."

Among the Chief Executive Officers who received poor marks in the study for their decision-making, 94% were cited as doing “too little, too late.” When making quick choices, experts say, mistakes will inevitably occur. But those mishaps can still be useful to companies. The single most-underused asset in business is mining your mistakes today for your success in the future.

3. Know how to form productive relationships

A major part of a Chief Executive Officer’s job is playing referee to the competing interests of stakeholders. Learning how to be influential with these parties, which range from boards of directors to customers to regulators, is crucial. And there’s a spectrum: On the one end are people who are crippled with concern over being liked, while on the other are those who can be characterized as "proverbial assholes.” The successful Chief Executive Officer will manage these relationships like a conductor leading an orchestra. High-performing business leaders will allow their understanding of the business to guide how they interact with others.

4. Adjust proactively to change

A CEO for a major technology firm will likely face a more rapidly changing landscape than the head of a utility company. Whatever the industry though, when it comes to being adaptive the most successful business leaders still retain a long-term focus. The highly adaptable Chief Executive Officers that the researchers analyzed spent up to 50% of their time strategizing for the future, rather than reacting to short-term changes. In other words, they’re researching potential obstacles by tapping into their business channels rather than waiting for problems to arise. They take the lens of what’s going to make the business successful, not just this quarter but five or 10 years from now.

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