how to be a better CEO


Whether you’re a young CEO or a very experienced one, there are specific things that truly successful CEOs know how to do well. They know how to build a fantastic team. They focus on what matters. And as a result, they know how to grow their business. These three things are common to all successful CEOs, but how do they achieve them? Let’s take a look based on three decades of consulting with CEOs of B2B middle market companies who are tired of fighting for market share. And if you’re not a CEO, these same things apply to anyone who is part of a business team.

Most CEOs all work under tremendous pressure to achieve their peak performance. They’ve been hired because they’ve excelled elsewhere and now a new group wants them to repeat their success at their company. But there’s a caution here, and it has a lot to do with what Bill Gates once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” He should know; he thought the internet was a passing fad when it first arrived! But so did a lot of other smart people so let’s not be too hard on him.

In the interest of time, let’s go through five things successful CEOs do:

  1. They are very clear on what they want to achieve. This doesn’t mean they know how they’re going to get there, but it does mean they don’t change the objective in mid-stream. They stop to evaluate the status quo and they are willing to challenge it. This is smart because with the focus and discipline to always be on the lookout for a great idea they learn how to spot one quickly and move faster than their competitors. I once asked a very famous creative director in Chicago what separated a genuinely great creative director from one that was average. He said, “A truly great CD can immediately separate a great idea from a mediocre one.” I think this applies to enlightened CEOs as well. They don’t waste time on lousy ideas so they can spend their time on great ones. 
  1. They help all of their employees know how to make a difference in the business. All employees want to know how they can “fit in” when they start a new position. Once they understand this, they feel free to develop new ways for the business to succeed. On the other hand, if they don’t feel their value in the organization because no one has gone out of their way to affirm it, they can feel left alone, making them work from a defensive attitude. This is not conducive to a productive employee, and experienced CEOs know this. In very competitive businesses where teams or individuals are pitted against each other, this compounds the insecurities of team members and typically leads to them finding other places to work.
  1. They freely communicate their values and they live them. Have you ever worked for someone who said one thing but did the exact opposite? CEOs who do this based on their business rank make a massive mistake by setting the wrong example for everyone to follow. I once consulted with a CEO of an international printing company who consistently did two things. He was the first in the business at 7:00 am, and he parked his car at the back of the parking lot. These two things sent a clear message of his values throughout the company. First, it encouraged everyone to work hard throughout their day. Second, it showed everyone what it meant to put others first. He was a remarkable leader in many other ways, but these two aspects have remained with me for many years.
  1. They establish clear goals for their team and let the team find how to achieve them. Visionary CEOs give their team room to be their own boss. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s really not. If you had a leadership team of 10 people, which would you prefer? One that could think for itself or one that needed you to tell them how to do everything, including the strategy, tactics, and the planned implementation timetable? The answer is obvious. But many CEOs shy away from this approach because they are reluctant to let go of their control because they fear the team may go amuck. The reality is that by allowing a team to develop its own strategy and plan and hold them accountable to it, you will produce far more innovative and productive team members than telling them exactly what you want them to do.
  1. They know what they are good at and what they suck at. This is not a slight to any CEO because by being aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots, they create an environment that their team feels safe working in. It encourages team members to be equally open and honest about themselves because they learn there is no reprisal for admitting they don’t know something or have never done a particular thing. It’s refreshing to be honest, frankly, and I’ve observed that the CEOs who are like this have the strongest and most loyal employees. One of the CEOs’ biggest strengths is the ability to breed trust, because, with trust, people will go the extra 10 miles past what’s expected of them. They will be encouraged to follow after their CEO’s excellent example and emulate it in their own lives. They’ll come in early, and they’ll park at the back of the parking lot to make it easier on people who arrive later. 

Take stock of your business and your involvement in it. Some call this a bucket list. It’s a truly healthy practice. And if you find you’re constantly late on projects, consistently making promises but never keeping them, perhaps it’s time for you to make a change because people with excuses build animosity with their team and pretty much set in motion their untimely exit.