The May-June issue of Harvard Business Review reports on an extensive 10-year study of “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart.” 14 researchers led by professors Steven N. Kaplan at the University of Chicago and Morten Serensen of Copenhagen Business School, drew from a database of assessments of 17,000 C-suite executives including more than 2,000 CEOs. The detailed assessments of every executive included performance appraisals, information on patterns of behavior, decisions, and business results with every executive. Some of this was supplemented with personal interviews with business associates.
This is a very comprehensive study that’s widely applicable to any C-suite leader or upcoming managers aspiring to senior leadership positions. Among results challenging common stereotypes was that introverts tended to slightly surpass extroverts and almost all leaders had made major mistakes. 45% of the CEO candidates “having at least one major career blowup that ended a job or was extremely costly to the business.”
Four behaviors emerged as differentiating skill sets. “Roughly half the strong candidates (who earned an A overall on a scale of A, B, or C) had distinguished themselves in more than one of the four essential behaviors.”
- Deciding with Speed and Conviction – leaders described as decisive were 12 times more likely to be high-performing. These leaders didn’t wait for perfect information or become bottlenecks because of too much analysis or caution. This finding — puzzling and counterintuitive to some — is strongly corroborated by Zenger Folkman’s research documented in their new book, Speed: How Successful Leaders Accelerate Execution (follow for a link to ZF’s Pace Assessment) and webinar on The Tango of Speed and Quality.
- Engaging for Impact – top performing leaders excel at getting buy-in from employees and other key stakeholders. They execute disciplined communications and influencing strategies. This doesn’t mean being liked or avoiding painful decisions. Engagement included effective conflict management. 2/3 of CEOs who excelled at engagement were rated highly in conflict management. Researchers found that the leaders who made it to the CEOs office faster than average were strong at engaging in conflict.
- Adapting Proactively – CEOs skilled at adapting were 6.7 times more likely to succeed. Highly adaptable leaders spent as much as 50% more time on a longer term focus. They plugged into broad information flows, networking, scanning diverse data sources, and looking for patterns in unrelated businesses. “As a result, they sense change earlier and make strategic moves to take advantage of it.” Adaptable leaders also recognized that setbacks were an inevitable part of the development process. They didn’t treat these as failures, but as learning opportunities. The CEOs who treated setbacks as failures were 50% less successful.
- Delivering Reliably – leaders who scored high on reliability were 15 times more likely to succeed. “A stunning 94% of the strong CEO candidates we analyzed scored high on consistently following through on their commitments.” Setting realistic expectations is key. And “most important, they surrounded themselves with strong teams.” 60% of first-time CEOs made the mistake of not getting the right team in place fast enough. “The successful ones move decisively to upgrade talent.”
This research doesn’t describe outstanding leaders as having supernatural powers across all four skill sets. One or two areas were towering strengths that elevated their effectiveness to extraordinary levels. If one of these four skills are very weak, that can be a leadership flaw that drags everything down and is fatal to effectiveness. But most leaders don’t have fatal flaws, just weaker areas. The pathway to higher performance isn’t through improving weaknesses. Pre/post leadership assessments show that “building leadership strengths is 2 – 3 times more effective than fixing weaknesses“.
So which of these skills could you turn into your super power? Which one is among your greatest strengths? Which one would have the most impact on your current or aspired role? And which skill are you most passionate about developing? Where your answer to those three questions intersect is where you’ll find your leadership development sweet spot and route to higher performance.