CEO Coaching: The CEO’s Critical Skill Set

A new CEO asked me which important leadership skills he needed to succeed—the building blocks of success. I suspect he thought my answer would include things like industry knowledge, technical brilliance, negotiating prowess and capital structure analysis. Those are all interesting, but they aren’t success factors I’ve observed in my many years of coaching successful CEOs. I told him I’d provide my answer in writing so thought I’d share it here.

First off, let’s define a successful CEO. Here’s my take: “One who can lead others to profitably address a market in a sustaining fashion.” Please note that my definition doesn’t include gaining notoriety, extracting exorbitant rewards and being loved by all. If those are more important to you, you’ll need a different list.

Each of these could use many paragraphs to identify exactly what they look like, how you’d measure success and how you develop the skill, but I assume you want a three-minute, not three-hour, read. If you spend a moment on each one, you’ll get the gist of it.

  1. Listen well.
  2. Communicate effectively (with precision and passion and by understanding your audience).
  3. Be curious (understanding that the questions are more important than the answers).
  4. Think strategically (this is about process, not intuition).
  5. Continually strive for self-improvement.
  6. Be resilient (accept failure as learning, not failure).
  7. Allow others to be great (creating the right environment and giving credit).
  8. Create wildly effective teams (gain alignment and trust and be brutally honest, committed and focused on the team’s, more than the individuals’, success).
  9. Serve others (both internally and externally).
  10. Master process (great leaders don’t just shoot from the hip).
  11. Balance confidence and humility.

I could’ve added one more to get to a dozen or made them all start with the same letter or put them into a poem, but this is serious stuff!

You can’t be good at everything, but you must be good at leading others. Great leaders require followers, so most of these skills center on getting people aligned and focused on what’ll make your company successful. 

How do you measure up? What would your team say?

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