There is a wealth of academic work compiling these skills because of in-depth research among CEOs, and an article like what I might attempt to write would never achieve such quality. At the same time, a purely opinion would also have its limitations.
In the end, I chose to take a third path that was highly enriching. I listed all the CEOs I worked with in decades of my career and selected the top five who stood out the most in their leadership style, with ethics being the dominant principle for each. I gathered the common characteristics:
In the intensity of demanding results, the ability to exercise empathy always seeks the real reasons behind performance below expectations. The focus is on why something happened rather than who was responsible.
In the face of challenges or missions received, along with the burden placed, there always comes the famous question: “How can I help?”
This demonstrates that this burden will be shared rather than simply placed on the shoulders of the one receiving it.
I remember a CEO who was assigned to a country where he didn’t speak the language, and he concluded that the best way to help his team to learn a new language would be to maintain his native own in all personal and group meetings. It was a missed opportunity to delve into and interact with a new culture.
I could compare this situation with the success of those who made an intense effort to speak the local language and, as a result, could see and understand aspects they had never imagined before.
Empathy brings a different perspective on people and the business that is not reflected in reports and opens fantastic doors of understanding. By seeing challenges through the eyes of others, it becomes easier to comprehend them and build a positive professional relationship.
Develop a vision
There is a big difference between a dreamer and a leader capable of inspiring a vision of the future that, although it may seem like a dream, is achievable. The focus of work seeking present results is by itself very exhausting.
Whenever a leader can outline a higher purpose, both in terms of the company and the personal goals of their team, the perspective of work changes completely.
I know several executives from the companies I worked for whose managers failed to outline an individual vision for their team’s future. Today, at least ten of those I personally mentored are CEOs in other companies. They found their visions elsewhere.
On the other hand, I had a CEO who never failed to ask me quarterly about my vision for the future of the business and what I was doing to achieve it. Jack Welch used to say that in day-to-day life, “the present and the future are the same thing.”
Building an inclusive vision of the business, communicating, and engaging all employees, is one of the most challenging skills for a CEO to develop.
Accessibility has a very broad sense, with both a passive and an active dimension. Passively, it is the attitude of not creating communication barriers through isolation, which can be a very strong tendency when someone reaches the position of CEO.
Active accessibility is when the CEO seeks to be present in workplaces, no matter how remote, to talk to people and listen to them, both employees and customers. In some cases, the size and geographical scope of the company make this impossible, but today, there is no shortage of virtual communication means to do so.
Accessibility includes the ability to talk about a wide range of subjects in various cultures or circumstances. The leaders I listed had in common a very broad general culture, which made them very comfortable at events, lunches with clients or employees, or even at a simple cocktail party.
I had CEOs who, in informal moments, only knew how to talk about performance expectations. On the other hand, others were able to engage in any subject of interest to the person they were talking to, which opened the door to the skill, empathy, mentioned above.
The ability to communicate is not centralized in the eloquence of a speech but in the ability to approach many people, listen to them, and make them feel your influence and leadership.
One of the most common causes of loss of trust in a CEO comes from a lack of transparency. Often, they confuse their role with that of a company’s Public Relations and focus only on conveying good news and presenting the best possible scenario.
Transparency means always dealing with reality at any level of communication, whether internal or external to the company, in meetings with your team, or in one-on-one conversations. One of the most bitter and constructive experiences of my career was when a CEO showed me that I was not ready for the position I aspired to and laid out the long path ahead if I truly wanted to get there.
The CEO of a large corporation I worked for used to hold a monthly broadcast to all employees, praising when performance was good but clearly showing when the company was in trouble. He pointed out problems, market, and company risks, and even the possible reduction of employees if there was no drastic change.
The undeniable fact is that employees know the reality because they are in the day-to-day business. They know when things are going well or if there are problems, but they do not have the knowledge of the whole picture. When the top-level discourse is not consistent with the reality, which they see in their roles…trust is lost.
This skill seems so obvious, but reality shows how difficult it is to practice. In my observation of these CEOs that I greatly admired, they used it in many situations. I can summarize some.
It takes courage to stay true to your own principles. I’ve known other leaders whose principles were unfortunately compromised out of pure fear or convenience.
It takes courage to make difficult decisions, often lonely ones, with only the best interests of the organization in mind, not friends, appearances, maintaining a good image, or even acknowledging past wrong decisions.
It takes courage to face storms of multiple pressures from shareholders, employees, customers, and competitors. I learned from these leaders that, courage comes before resilience, which is developed by facing difficult situations.
Courage precedes the skill of transparency described above because transparency always comes at a cost, although the overall balance is positive.
I concluded that having courage does not mean there is no insecurity, fear, indecision, or doubts when making high-risk decisions, but this skill overcomes all other barriers.