01 September 2018

On Becoming a CEO

"Nobody knows how to be a CEO. It's something you have to learn. It's a very lonely job."

--Ben Horowitz

In his valedictory Corner Office column, Adam Bryant summarizes a decade of interviews with 525 Chief Executive Officers (CEOs). "What a rare vantage point a CEO has for spotting patterns about management, leadership, and human behavior," he notes.

What else can we learn from a rich trove of Chief Executive Officer wisdom?


After sorting through the insights, Bryant begins by offering three themes from those interviews:

1. Applied curiosity. CEOs tend to question everything. They want to know how things work and wonder how they can be made to work better. In addition, they're curious about people and their backstories.

They wonder less about the right career path and make the most of whatever they choose. Lessons learned from their experiences are crucial to their development.

2. Challenges are motivating. The last thing this category of leadership wants is to be comfortable.  

3. Management discipline. On the way to the top, the focus is on doing the current job well. If the concern is more about the job you want than the job you have, that's a problem. And those nearby can sense when you're emotionally absent from your current position. There's nothing wrong with thinking and planning ahead. But the focus should be on building a track record of success. When you do, people notice.

It's not simple

Leadership is a series of paradoxes. For example, needing humility and confidence at the same time.

The highest attribute


Making the right hiring decisions

If you could ask somebody only one question, and you had to decide on the spot whether to hire them based on their answer, what would it be?

"What are the qualities you like least and most in your parents?" (Bob Brennan, CA Technologies)

A CEO story

As told by Bill Green, chief executive of Accenture ...

"I was recruiting at Babson College. This was in 1991. The last recruit of the day--I get this resume'. I get the blue sheet attached to it, which is the form I'm supposed to fill out with all this stuff, and his resume' is attached to the top. The resume' is very light--no clubs, sports, nothing. Babson 3.2 (GPA). Studied finance. Work experience: Sam's Diner, references on request.  

"It's the last one of the day, and I've seen all these people come through strutting their stuff, and they've got their portfolios and semester study abroad. Here comes this guy. He sits. His name is Sam, and I say:  'Sam, let me just ask you, what else were you doing while you were here?'  

"He says, Well, Sam's Diner. That's our family business, and I leave on Friday after classes, and I go to work till closing. I work all day Saturday till closing, Sunday until I close, and then I drive back to Babson. So, I wrote, 'Hire him,' on the blue sheet. He had character. He faced a set of challenges. Finally, he figured out how to do both."

What else should we know?

"It's work ethic," Green said. "You could see the guy had charted a path for himself to make it work with his situation. He didn't ask for any help. He wasn't victimized by the thing. He said, 'That's my dad's business, and I work there.' Confident. Proud."

A desirable trait

What's to admire about successful CEOs? The columnist Bryant concludes: "They own their job, whatever it is."

(C) Bredholt & Co.