The Top Traits of a Great CEO

Does your chief exec have what it takes? Do you? Naomi Snelling tells you how to find out…


Nothing can properly prepare you for parenthood, and the same is true for being a CEO. The challenges are immense, but the rewards are fulfilling.

There may be no rule book, but there are some guidelines.


… and continue to grow as a person
“Be yourself,” advised Oscar Wilde. “Everyone else is already taken.” There’s only one Nelson Mandela, Elon Musk, Bill Gates. What you bring to your company is something unique. Celebrate who you are and the skill set, personality, tenacity and inspiration that you bring to the role.


… even in the face of challenge
Klaus Schlichtherle, chief executive of Infinigate Group, the pan-European value-added distributor (VAD) of cybersecurity solutions, has more than 15 years’ management experience.

“I have made it a habit to first approach people and events positively,” he says, “at worst neutrally, and preferably not negatively at all. For me, this means aspiring to go through life with a constructive view on the world, not a destructive one. To be honest, I have to practice that every day. And I don’t always succeed 100 percent,” he admits.


… to empower your staff
Leaders make things happen, achieve specific outcomes, to turn plans into reality. As Schlichtherle says: “I aspire to give people a vision, a mission and the purpose of their work — and I give them the support they need to focus on this.

“I give them an idea what the future of the company will look like, and this is the compass that steers them to focus on what they can do to help get us there. They know their own capacity, and their part in this, better than anyone. They figure out by themselves what they can do within this framework, in an entrepreneurial style, to achieve their goals. Yes, now and then mistakes are made, and they are allowed. They are sometimes even useful for the organisation to learn more quickly or effectively.”


… to work towards your vision
Mutual trust a fine thing. Your team needs to know what success looks like, and you need to trust them to find their own route there.

“At Infinigate, we care about cybersecurity in order to help businesses be safer places, today and in the future. As a value-added distributor in cybersecurity, secure networking and secure cloud, we offer a platform for vendors and resellers in this domain.

“Security in cyberspace is our focus. Nothing less, nothing more. Our people know that. Managers and leaders don’t have to give everybody a detailed activity plan. That’s how I want the business to be running.”


… and create an environment that supports that
In a recent interview with The Financial Times, Eric Johnson, CEO of JSR, Japan’s leading semiconductor materials maker, described how honest dialogue with staff and stakeholders was key to helping him restructure the company.

No matter how accessible you think you are as a leader, your team could be withholding information, ideas and fears from you. Dina Denham Smith, founder and CEO of Cognitas, is an executive coach to leaders at top brands including Adobe, Netflix, PwC, Dropbox, and Stripe. “You can tell your team, ‘We all have blind spots, myself included’,” she says. “I need your help to see mine, and I want you to question and disagree with me if you think I am off-base.”

She advises leaders to consistently ask the team for their ideas — and assure them they don’t need to build an ironclad case for each one. Publicly acknowledge and thank independent voices that share a dissenting opinion, question your logic, or disagree with you.


… visibility and transparency matter
It’s a classic military leadership technique, and most civilians ascribe to it in one way or another.

“To me, a leader is someone who eats their own cooking,” says Sean Ferres, founder of Copy Millions Blueprint Program, a global movement of some 400 freelance copywriters and closers from 30 countries. The summit speaker believes in leadership from the front, getting in the trenches, and getting your hands dirty. “Because if you don’t set the best possible example for your team, who will?”


… and channel your wisdom
Author and business guru Simon Sinek says that great leaders speak last. Not to have the last word, but because it ensures that everyone feels heard. It also gives the CEO the benefit of understanding what everybody else thinks before giving their own opinion.

Use with care: Leaders need to set the tone and purpose of a meeting. Being the last one to speak doesn’t make you a leader — it’s a privilege of leadership.

Like the judge at a trial, the final word rests with you, not because of any supernatural ability but because of the authority conferred by your position. Corporate authority needs to be wielded with understanding, compassion and care. In a Tony Robbins podcast, Sinek related how Nelson Mandela learned to “speak last” by observing his parental guardian, Thembu King Jongintaba Dalindyebo. He would gather his men in a circle and wait until they had spoken before speaking himself.

Mandela later used this approach in his own meetings — and his biographer, Richard Stengel, quotes him as saying “Don’t enter the debate too early.” Stengel says Mandela would hear his colleagues out and summarise their points before offering his own views, subtly steering the decision in the direction he wanted.

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