May 13

Key Traits a CEO Needs Today – and How CCOs Can Help

Björn Edlund

Bjorn Edlund
Retd EVP Communications, Royal Dutch Shell plc
Principal, Edlund Consulting Ltd.

We know from research and experience that CEOs – with their individual leadership styles, their passions and areas of constant or temporary focus – make an enormous difference in the companies they head. Even their foibles rub off and leave a mark. The CEO wears red braces. Pretty soon a lot of people, and most certainly loyal souls nearest him, will wear red braces. And blue braces, well, they will likely come to be regarded as a display of ‘outsider tendencies’.

CEOs may only be able to accomplish so much themselves, nor reach through so many layers themselves, in their 14-hour days. But their personal influence – as in my silly braces anecdote – is felt viscerally and directly throughout large parts of the organization. And, through the virtue of holding a commander’s job, they wield power over everyone around them.

Is this always a good thing? Probably not. But it is the reality in which we live, in every large organization. For the CCO, often a key interpreter of the signals sent out by the CEO, thinking about which personality traits to nurture in the CEO could be the difference between success and failure. For the CEO, the company and the CCO.

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog, Justin Menkes talks about three traits every CEO needs. Menkes recounts how he searched for qualities that define leaders who excel in our turbulent times marked by greater pressures and greater speed. Three qualities stood out, and were further probed during in-depth interviews with 60 current and retired CEOs.

Menkes, with the humility characteristic of those selling business books, says he identified three attributes that are “catalysts for the mastery displayed by the world’s best CEOs. Together, they add up to a new definition of leadership.

1. “Realistic optimism. Leaders with this trait possess confidence without self-delusion or irrationality. They pursue audacious goals, which others would typically view as impossible pipedreams, while at the same time remaining aware of the magnitude of the challenges confronting them and the difficulties that lie ahead.

2. “Subservience to purpose. Leaders with this ability see their professional goal as so profound in importance that their lives become measured in value by how much they contribute to furthering that goal. What is more, they must be pursuing a professional goal in order to feel a purpose for living. In essence, that goal is their master and their reason for being. They do not ruminate about their purpose, because their mind finds satisfaction in its occupation with their goal. Their level of dedication to their work is a direct result of the extraordinary, remarkable importance they place on their goal.

3. “Finding order in chaos. Leaders with this trait find taking on multidimensional problems invigorating, and their ability to bring clarity to quandaries that baffle others makes their contributions invaluable.”

Confident focus under pressure, goal-orientation and a knack for keeping things simple, in other words. Those are great traits – and I can see how a CCO could get along fine with a CEO with those traits.

But above all, those would be traits a CCO could stimulate in CEOs who might find it hard to stay composed when things get rough, overstress their own importance and contribute to the sense of overwhelming messiness that life so often presents.

I can picture the coaching conversations – never diaried as such: CEOs are by nature perfect, of course, and need no coaching. At least not from CCOs or any other staffers. “Let me back up a little. I know many people are telling you this is a crazy situation but I think you’ve seen the way through already. And your commitment to focus and work at this challenge (fill in the blank) now is key,” the CCO says.

And so you’re off and running. Both sides of those situations – working alongside a confident CEO with a calm, strategic focus or one who flaps around a little when things get tough – are what make CCO jobs so fascinating.

Think about it. Realistic Optimism, Subservience to Purpose and Finding Order in Chaos – that’s a pretty good description of what it takes to be a good CCO.

But it is NOT a new definition of leadership, as Menkes says.

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