This week we opened a discussion around CEOs and the key characteristics they should possess in order to lead effectively and to be exceptional in their role.
Although the list may be long, we have asked experts to focus their opinion to just 5 key traits, giving an overall summary of what they feel is important.
From the discussion below, the traits that come up most frequently are compassion (or emotional intelligence), risk taking and resilience.
Do you agree with the traits that are listed in our forum, or do you have different idea on what makes a great CEO?
Fleur Brown, Founder Launch Group and Entrepreneurs TV
Confidence is currency for CEO’s – don’t think about taking on the role without being willing to be visible and willing to share your point of view. CEO’s are expected more than ever to personally champion their business and to have active influence across a range of public channels.
At the same time, Authenticity is also more critical than ever. You can’t fake authenticity, which means you need to be genuinely and passionate connected to both what you do and your message. It’s important to take on a role in an organisation that truly aligns with your values – or you and your message will come unstuck. It’s also important to invest the time in what you say and how you say it. You need to be relatable to customers and other stakeholders – that can only stem from an authentic connection to your message.
Cameron Kenna, Founder and CEO of executive recruitment and advisory business, Ampersand International
Today’s CEO needs to have very different qualities than those associated with the successful CEO of the past. It’s no longer about ‘command and control’ but about providing inspirational leadership.
- Humility: CEOs need to show their vulnerability, taking on feedback to improve the business and gain respect from their team.
- Teamwork: CEOs are increasingly leading from behind the scenes. There’s little room for ego as a successful CEO must empower the team to succeed. Strong egos not big ones own the day.
- Thick skin: Transparency is key in today’s business environment, and for a CEO that extends beyond business decisions to their personal life. There are many channels for people to voice opinions publicly, so you need a thick skin and a good sense of perspective.
- Laser focus: With so much data available, a CEO needs to maintain laser focus, cutting through ‘noise’ and effectively analysing business data to determine what’s relevant, meaningful and actionable.
- Vision: CEOs need to look to the future, and innovate ahead of new trends to stay relevant. Most importantly they need to make this vision resonate with the team so everyone is moving in the right direction.
Brent Churchill, CEO, Enlighten
Today’s CEOs need to be hands-on leaders who can balance having a clear vision with the ability to make it happen. Five essential traits that make a successful leader are:
- Decisiveness. Execution and implementation is a must have mindset for a CEO. A lot of their other qualities come from this.
- Emotional intelligence. This helps drive workplace change and enhances employee engagement.
- Big picture thinking. Leaders need a direction and to commit to a big picture view, looking long-term at business decisions in order to create successful and sustainable change.
- Collaborative thinking. Leaders can no longer afford to remove themselves from the day to day – they need to collaborate with others in the organisation, both horizontally and vertically
- Detail-orientated. A long-term vision is no use if it isn’t executed. Leaders need to also have a high attention to detail in order to have all the individual pieces fit together every step of the way.
Emma Bannister, CEO of Presentation Studio
Most, if not all CEOs are where they are today due to a perfect marriage of corporate experience and key personality traits. So, what personality traits are imperative for every CEO? In my opinion, empathy is number one. Empathy is the authentic human to human connection that blends life experience, strength and kindness. Number two: a level head; what will navigate you though the tough times. Third is pride. Pride helps feed passion, unleashes powerful self-awareness and protects yours (and your team’s reputation). Next up is courage, the hallmark of every inspiring leader. Finally, positivity. The trait that has help steer every CEO’s journey and nothing is more contagious.
Gabrielle Dolan, leadership specialist and author of Real Communication
Be an engaging communicator. The best strategy in the world will fail if it is not communicated in a way that people understand or connect and engage with. Role model desired values and have the courage to call out unwelcome behaviours. Be open to suggestions. Leadership is not always about knowing all the answers nor being the smartest person in the room. Use real words by avoiding jargon and acronyms that are confusing. This approach will slow things down as well as isolate and disengage employees. Make tough decisions. Ultimately the buck stops with the CEO so it is important to make courageous decisions.
Michelle Gibbings, Director of Change Meridian
It’s not so much about personality – as that implies it’s about the traits which leaders are born with – rather than the skills that can and need to be consciously learned and cultivated by leaders. These are:
– Self-awareness: understand self, trigger points and motivations
– Fairness: in how they treat people, allocate resources and make decisions
– Curiosity: willingness to challenge assumptions, constantly learn and recognise they don’t have all the answers
– Courage: ability to step into difficult conversations and make tough decisions
– Compassion: for self and others, which means they are willing to be humble and vulnerable
Mathew Colbron, CEO and Co-Founder of Tell Me Baby
As the CEO of a tech startup, there are some specific traits I feel are important to a CEO of a younger, developing company which I think should be addressed. Strong leadership is a given in any CEO role, but here are some deeper insights on what I think makes a great startup CEO.
Talent picker and developer
As the CEO of a smaller team and fewer resources, it is essential to identify what roles are needed and in what order to maximise potential and breadth and ensure the team is leveraged. In a startup, the opportunities to grow are limitless but it is up to you to give your team the tools they need and the coaching along the way to inspire them to succeed and go above and beyond.
All CEOs need to lead with vision, and for a startup, this needs to be combined with realistic optimism. Leading your team powerfully through uncertainty as you develop your product and routes to market, finesse your strategy, and raise capital, ensures that they can get on with the day-to-day, all while feeling confident you are steering the ship in the right direction.
Taking calculated risks uncovers opportunities that can lead to great results, and this is an inherent part of early stage businesses. It also demonstrates and creates a culture of embracing and overcoming fear of failure which develops confident teams and leaders that don’t just rely on you to make all decisions.
It takes more energy to get a flywheel spinning from standstill than when it is already moving. Similar to this, it takes more effort and energy to build a business from an early stage. There will be many setbacks, roadblocks, and challenges along the way. Tenacity is a critical trait of early-stage startup CEOs for this reason.
In Jim Collins’s book “Good to Great”, the one common trait of leaders of great businesses is humility. He calls these “level 5 leaders”, and they display a powerful mix of personal humility and indomitable will. They need to be good listeners and acknowledge they won’t always have the answers to create the results needed. This makes them approachable and inspiring to the teams they work with.
Ken Kencevski, CEO and Founder of Devika
1) Lead with integrity – Doing the right thing, even when no one is watching, is an important part of building relationships. A great CEO needs to build long-term relationships not only with internal staff, but with clients and key stakeholders.
2) Be an active listener – People are often too busy thinking about their next response or their next task that they are not always present in the moment. Effective CEO’s need to practice being present in the moment and really listen and understand people when they speak. This allows them to become more active listeners, improve empathy and achieve better outcomes overall.
3) Be curious and push the boundaries – Curiosity and pushing boundaries are key to the success of every great CEO. It makes for a more active mind, improves innovation and encourages new ideas.
4) Create an impact – A CEO should be driven by making an impact and driving change for a better world. Creating an impact requires an understanding of how to bring the company towards its strategic goals and at times taking risks to get there.
5) Have a purpose – The best CEOs exude passion and purpose in their job. When employees or stakeholders see your commitment to fulfilling your purpose, it allows them to better connect not only to you but your mission, vision and company goals.
Adrian Przelozny, CEO and founder of Australia’s Leading Cryptocurrency Exchange, Independent Reserve
Analytical thinking is critical in the workplace, especially as a CEO. You need to be able to solve complex problems through scrupulous research and attention to detail and find a result that best works for your business and its people.
CEOs aren’t exactly known for being patient, so I think when you are it really has an impact. Having patience opens doors, as you make time for new ideas that may lead to something better while creating a happier and calmer work environment. Not everything in business works out the way you want it to, so impatience is self-sabotage for a CEO.
A business without focus will never progress. Focusing on clear goals and objectives generates a better quality of work, reduces stress, enhances efficiency and speeds up productivity. Maintaining focus as a CEO will encourage the rest of your team to focus on what they need to as well.
Resilient people don’t dwell on their failures, but rather consider them as a challenge and seek out ways to learn and grow from them. CEOs should put energy into the things that empower them and what they can control. There are paradigm shifts in almost all industries, CEOs of start-ups as well as established businesses with resilience will also adapt and learn new skills quicker.
There’s such a bad stigma around vulnerability, but I believe that being vulnerable creates space for innovation and growth. As a CEO, showing your vulnerabilities makes you more human, relatable and connects you to your team.
Kieran Warwick, CEO and Founder of The Burger Collective
A great CEO should demonstrate determination and resolve, particularly when a business is just starting up. The number of challenges that are thrown at you within the first 12 months can make running the business seem impossible, but a CEO with resolve can navigate the company through these difficult times until they make it out to the other (hopefully) greener side.
One saying that I find myself repeating a lot is “shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land in the stars.” I firmly believe this to be true, and the reality is that very few businesses get it right on the first try. Being prepared to iterate your idea until you reach product-market fit, requires high levels of optimism, and certainly isn’t easy at times, but it’s a much better mindset for a CEO to have.
You have to be willing to take calculated risks, or your business may never reach its full potential. I say calculated because too many times founders don’t test their market or idea, and quickly things begin to unravel, this has happened to me on several occasions. Risk-taking can lead to massive growth, and can also teach you critical things about your business that you didn’t know.
Communicating your vision
It’s the CEO’s job to steer the ship and vision is what every successful CEO must have to traverse the dangerous playing field of a startup. It’s okay for the vision of the business to change, but it’s how it is communicated to the team that is most critical.
Every single CEO out there will be able to tell you of a tale of failure, even if it was just an idea or a new product launch, we’ve all made mistakes. It’s the CEO’s that own these mistakes that take decisive action, and quickly. Remember it’s not just about accepting when you are wrong; it’s how quickly you can receive, process and then fix those mistakes.
Rudy Crous, CEO and co-founder of Shortlyster
High Emotional Intelligence: A good CEO has to understand how their behaviour impacts the people around them. What they say and do and the attitudes they model will either motivate people, drive high performance, instil passion and belief in the greater vision or result in dissonance, turnover, and a negative culture. The CEO needs to understand how to use their people skills to get the best out of themselves and the people around them.
Grit and Tenacity: Things are going to get tough…it’s business. The CEO needs to be able to put shoulder to the wheel, dig deep, and persist in the face of adversity. Being a CEO is believing in the vision, even when the path to success is still a work-in-progress.
Commercial Acumen: In no uncertain terms, the CEO is running a business. So they have to be able to quickly and effectively evaluate the market, identify opportunities and implement and execute the business strategy, whilst being aware of the competition and anticipating how the market is changing over time.
Captain of the Ship: The CEO sets the course of company and has to anticipate and navigate challenges. They are responsible for communicating the vision, motivating people to come on the journey with them and effectively harness people power. They need to be decisive and disciplined and know how to have difficult conversations and be assertive. At the same time there needs to be an element of vulnerability, humility, and humanity about them.
Mental Resilience: It can be tough being a CEO and the road can be lonely at times because there aren’t many people who they can confide in. An effective CEO has to be able to successfully manage their stress and anxiety, deal with difficult and draining situations, and understand the importance of having good mental health and how to go about building it.
Dipra Ray, CEO & Managing Director of mPort
1) Perseverance – this is the most clichéd but one of the most important traits for a CEO to have. Businesses go through ups and downs and being able to persevere through these is the key
2) Honesty & transparency– this is key to being able to build trust with both internal and external stakeholders.
3) The ability to communicate – this is often why the smartest people aren’t necessarily the best CEO’s but the best CEO’s are the ones that can communicate with both the smartest and the rest in an organisation
4) Empathy – probably the most important of them all – being able to put yourselves in other people’s shoes and understand their views is critical to any CEO’s success.
5) The ability to have fun – I think this one is far too underrated. I think people like to be able to relate with people who lead and I think it’s important for any CEO not to take themselves too seriously and be able to let their hair down and have a good time.
Yanir Yakutiel, CEO and Founder of Lumi Finance
- Integrity: People tend to associate themselves with people and brands they trust. Creating that human connection is essential and we have that position to set this tone within the organisation. If you’re the type of leader that induces fear and anxiety, you will never have their trust or loyalty.
- Empathy: True leadership is about empowering others to achieve what they didn’t think was possible. Your staff will be more willing to protect and advance the organisation if you prioritise their well-being.
- Vision: Leaders have to have a vision of the future that doesn’t exist yet and we need to be able to articulate it passionately to drive it to completion.
- Optimism: The more resilient we are to failure, the more we can welcome it as a learning opportunity rather than fearing it.
- Humility:The more realistic you are about your limitations, the more you allow others to contribute. You become a better listener as you know you don’t have all the answers which enables you to recognise the value of others without feeling threatened.
Sabri Suby, founder of King Kong, Australia’s fastest growing digital marketing agency
CEOs can have all different personalities, but the five characteristics that they must have in order to succeed are:
Ban shiny-object syndrome and focus on what will move the money-needle and bring you closer to your huge goals.
You need to be comfortable enough to identify your strengths and weaknesses and skill-gaps. Don’t let these shortcomings hold you back – work on eliminating them.
An effective risk taker is someone that can quickly make calculated risks. Without some failure, you never get to the really good stuff so be prepared to take risks.
I believe there isn’t any problem that can’t be overcome by sound strategy and a sheer amount of work directed towards it. Be the hardest workers in your industry.
Trust your intuition
While you look at all the facts and the data, your intuition is incredibly powerful and you need to learn to hone it and trust it.
Dr. Gero Decker, Co-founder and CEO of business transformation solutions provider Signavio
A CEO must have the ability to learn from past experiences and instil lessons for the future, with a clear vision and realistic optimism targeted simply and effectively across all company teams.
As a leader, a CEO must learn how to communicate effectively to boost morale when necessary for internal and external loyalty, whilst understanding matters in and outside of the workplace. A top chief executive is also distinguished by the way they listen to, and actively seek out the opinions and ideas of trusted individuals for company-wide adoption and success.
As the head of a company, a CEO must create a healthy and collaborative work environment and take calculated risks to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities that surpass the norms of business. They must also be able to teach and train in a way that inspires staff for company-wide confidence and adaptability to succeed.
Rob Hango-Zada is the co-founder and co-CEO of retail logistics software platform Shippit
There are five personality traits that I think are essential to the role of chief executive. These are:
- Curiosity: the ongoing, burning desire to look for new opportunities or ways to improve;
- Resilience: as a CEO, you are completely exposed to investor, market and team pressures. Internally, the buck stops with you as the major escalation point for all things mission critical. You really need a tough skin to maintain composure and remain motivated day in and day out;
- Strategic thinking: the ability to think about ways to turn 1 + 1 into 3. Often you are faced with fairly practical decisions to make but the reality is, the best choices are often never presented;
- Discipline: prioritisation and follow through are everything. Do what you say you’ll do and hold others to account on what they say they will do. It is the only way to move a business forward;
- Empathy: growing a business from nothing isn’t easy. It takes tenacity, grit and resilience – not just from you as a CEO, but from everyone on the team. Great leaders maintain strong empathy toward their team members, knowing when to recognise people who are at risk of burn out and knowing when you’re asking for too much is really important.
Trevor Townsend is the CEO of global accelerator program Startupbootcamp
Early-stage startups and the personality traits required for early-stage companies differ from the traditional CEO in a number of important ways.
At Startupbootcamp Australia, we work with hundreds of founders each year and the traits that we look for in the CEO, include:
- High-risk tolerance: the startup CEO has to have a high-risk tolerance as it is more than likely that the startup endeavour will fail. As a company grows, risk management is a key attribute, but as a CEO of a startup, you cannot be scared of the multitude of risks that you face;
- Resilient: most things that you try as a startup will fail and you need to pick yourself up each day and try something new to get the business underway. If the CEO is not highly resilient, they will not succeed – whether it is capital raising, acquiring customers, retaining staff, running on little money. For the CEO of a small company, everything is personal!;
- Mission: as a CEO, you need to have a strong vision and drive to carry you forward. This is what underpins the resilience. Startup CEOs have everything on the line and to survive mentally and to motivate and lead the team, they have to live their mission. They have to believe!;
- ‘T’ shaped: the startup CEO needs to be across all aspects of the business and have deep expertise in a few areas. The personality traits of the CEO are a thirst for learning and the ability to feel comfortable being ‘uncomfortable’, making decisions in areas with limited knowledge and experience. Unlike a corporate CEO, the startup CEO does not have the staff to advise him and may get lots of conflicting advice from well meaning friends and family;
- Open and friendly: startup CEOs need to have an open and friendly personality, they need people to believe in them and trust them. People are supporting them, working for below market salaries, trailing a beta product, investing in the ‘dream’, and they will only do that if they like and trust the CEO of the startup. The startup CEO needs to be able to have this personality but then also not shirk the hard decisions that will be needed as the company starts to grow.
The above traits are a certain style of entrepreneurial leadership, which often do not scale with the business. The challenge for a startup CEO, if the business is successful, is can they evolve fast enough to be able to manage a complex organisation, where most of the decisions are delegated and leadership takes a different form? As a company develops, the CEO must evolve or be self-aware enough to know if they need to move on.