Characteristics of Good CEO’s


I am asked often what defines a good CEO. This is quickly followed up by stories of “let me tell you about our CEO!” Normally, it is not to tell me a good story! I have the pleasure of coaching many CEO’s of large and small companies, public and private, family owned and employee owned. I can say that there is no perfect CEO but I have found some characteristics that I will share here. I would also encourage you to listen to the Freakonomics broadcast. They have been doing a great series on How to Become a C.E.O.

HBR wrote an interesting article in the May-June 2017 issue called “What Sets Successful CEO’s Apart” by Botelho, Powell, Kincaid and Wang. Here is the link: https://hbr.org/2017/05/what-sets-successful-ceos-apart 

The 4 keys from their study were:

1.     Deciding with speed and conviction

2.     Engaging for impact

3.     Adopting Proactively

4.     Delivering Reliably

Here are some of the ones that I see in the successful CEO’s I coach—

-Set clear expectations

-Spend 50% or more of your time on long term planning

-Set clear expectations and give people room to be creative

-Learning continuously

-Spend time networking with people outside the organization

-Invite conflict but find consensus before moving on

-Mentor key talent

-Understand the needs of the Board/Key Stakeholders and Lead them

-Recognize accomplishments and celebrate the behaviors you want to foster

-Understand you are on a stage and everyone hangs on your words

-You have a serious job but do not take yourself too seriously—show you are human

-Find a coach, mentor or good executive round table to be able to have a thinking partner

The CEO role is a demanding, challenging and can be all consuming. Many of the CEO’s I know are lonely. This is the reason that many seek executive coaching or join an executive round table. I highly encourage this so that the CEO has a thinking partner which can help hold them accountable. The most successful CEO’s are really great at prioritizing and know how to say no. They also know how to delegate effectively without directing the work. The CEO’s that I see that get burned out tend to direct work, feel it must be done a certain way or do not hire/grow strong enough talent around them.

A final characteristic that I see in successful CEO’s are their ability to not take things so personally. They do from time to time but most of the time they can hear the feedback and can attach the problems they are choosing. My favorite line from this week was from a female CEO who said this about a star performer-“I personally think she is a b*t$h, but I think I will let it go.” I asked why she felt this way and she said, “I do not have to be her friend, she does great work and her people like working with her.” This is a hard thing to learn but sums up life as a CEO. You have to pick your battles, be confident in your decisions, lead with vision, expectations and recognition and try to understand that everyone is watching while still being authentic.

If you are a CEO or hope to be one, what is the characteristic that you want to develop? For me, it has been not getting distracted by the day to day and spending time thinking long term. It also took me a while to not let things affect me personally. Let me know what you are working on or if you need help. Good luck!


How to Think and Act Like a Day One Executive

We recently had April Armstrong on our Voltcast: Illuminating Leadership Radio Show. April is the CEO of Aha Insight and author of the upcoming book called The Day One Executive.  We had a fast-paced conversation about how you could start thinking like an executive. If you already an executive, we also talked about some good practices to sharpen our leadership saw. Below are a few highlights from our conversation.

Jeff-Why did you write the book?

April-If you’re lucky you’ll have a mentor in your career. But I recently spoke to a group and 2 people in the room raised their hands that they had never had a mentor in their life. This book is for them. And quite frankly, even if you’ve had a mentor – this book reflects my experience with hundreds of executives from all walks of life, my journey as a very young executive in a very big company, and a lot of research into top executive traits.

J-What does it mean to be a Day One Executive?

A-You show up differently. You are like the lion looking for “the standard” to eat for lunch. You are that aware. And you show up as an executive starting on Day One of your career. It is a choice to show up as an executive. Anyone can be an executive. This is not something you have to wait for someone to promote you to.

J-How is this different from a lot of the other “leadership” books out there?

A-This takes a close look at a very specific attribute of leadership. Not all leaders are executives, and by no means are all executives leaders. This book is for the born leader who wants to bring out and cultivate their inner executive – starting right now.

J-What’s an example of something from the book that folks may not have heard someplace else?

A-Know the real driving force of the business you are in.

J-Won’t millennials do it all different? Will this book be out of date by the time it is printed?

A-There’s a lot of chatter about millennials versus Gen X and older. And they will do it different. They will reshape the world. But what is not likely to change dramatically is the fundamental underpinnings of what it takes to change the world.

This book isn’t written for climbers or coasters. It’s written for people who want to change the world and it takes a certain leadership to do this. 

I encourage you to buy April’s book. It is filled with ideas, suggestions and tips to help you become a better executive. Here are a couple of thoughts that I have to get you started:

1.     Create an advisory board—identify 3-5 people that can give you feedback on your leadership skills. Have lunch or coffee with them 2-3 times a year and ask them for feedback on how you can grow as a leader.

2.     Be curious about your organization. What are the driving forces of your business? What can you do to take the initiative to help the organization be successful in the key aspects of the business.

3.     Be clear on your development and then go get better at what you are working on. Read a book, watch a YouTube video, find a good podcast to listen to or identify a coach or thinking partner that can help stay accountable to your growth.

4.     Grow others—might be in your organization or could be in a volunteer setting. The best way to hone your executive skills is to teach others and notice where you still have growth for yourself.

Good luck and let me know what you are working on. Thanks to April for a great show!


What type of peer are you?  How would your direct reports talk about you?  How about key customers?

I have recently been working with a team that is struggling with trust issues at the Executive Level.  This is a progressive company that has had tremendous success in the past and has cutting edge ideas that are reinventing the business they are in.  However, the Executives can barely stand to be in the same room.  Have you ever been in this type of situation?  I believe you probably have been at some point in your career.

I want you to think about a peer you really trust.  What is it about this person that allows you to open up and share your ideas, concerns and hopes?  We do an exercise at Voltage called Elements of Trust.  There are 6 characteristics of Trust and we ask people to rate the following elements from 1-6 (1 is high, 6 is low) reflecting how important each element is to each person.

6 characteristics of Trust

·       Time

·       Standards

·       Competence

·       Involvement

·       Sincerity

·       Reliability

Many times trust issues result because we value different things.  If you value competence highly and someone says they can do something but then does not perform the task appropriately, you are going to have a trust breakdown.  They may have been sincere, on time, and involved you and others but, if they miss the result, it will still be hard for you to trust this individual.

We took the previously mentioned Executive Team through this exercise.  Two had standards in their mind that had not been expressed.  Another two really cared about sincerity and thought competence could be grown over time.  However, another two thought you had to have proven competence or else they would not want to work with you on the project.  They realized that some of their challenges were because they valued different things and this understanding helped them in resolving their trust issues.  Try the Elements of Trust exercise at your organization and see what you discover.