Do You Really Know What Makes a Good CEO?

Ellevate Network
3 min readNov 6, 2018

By: Miriam Grobman

Go ahead and google the words “successful CEO.” You will find many images of suited caucasian men in confident, extroverted poses. Indeed, we have a certain image of how a successful CEO should look and act (male, extroverted, tall, aggressive, etc…) based on the films, books, and other pop culture media forms we’ve been raised with.

The handful of CEOs who are often in the headlines help perpetuate these stereotypes. Maybe you’re like me; you’re tired of constantly hearing about the same people (Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs, Welsh, Bezos…) and wish there were more diverse examples of what CEOs can look and act like.

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Thankfully, there’s a body of research out there that can help us get a clearer picture.

In their book The CEO Next Door, Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell use their two decades of experience with hiring, advising, and coaching over 2,600 leaders to codify the successful CEO’s genome and overturn the myths about what it takes to get to the top and to succeed.

Some of the interesting points they uncover from their database of 17,000 CEOs and C-level execs include:

  1. Only 7% of the CEOs graduated from an Ivy League college. 8% of CEOs didn’t even finish college.
  2. Over 70% of CEOs didn’t think about becoming a CEO until they came within reach of C-suite levels.
  3. A third of CEOs described themselves as “introverted.” Self-described introverts were slightly more likely to exceed boards’ expectations. Perceived high confidence more than doubled one’s chances to be chosen as CEO, but provided no advantage in performance on the job.
  4. 45% of CEO candidates had at least one major career blowup that either ended a job or was extremely costly to the business.
  5. There is little difference between behavioral attributes of successful female and male CEOs. Additionally, gender had no correlation with probability to deliver strong results. Yet, only about 4–6% of CEOs of largest companies are women.
  6. CEOs aren’t perfect. Even the best-performing CEOs have three to six key development areas to improve on when they get the job.
  7. There is no correlation between how hard a leader worked and how likely she or he was to become a CEO. 97% of low-performing CEOS scored high on work ethics.
  8. First-time CEOs were just as likely to meet or exceed expectations as those with prior CEO experience.

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So, what are the skills or behaviors that separate the best from the rest? Botelho’s and Powell’s research identifies four behaviors that are associated with success:

  1. Decisiveness.
  2. Engaging (employees and stakeholders) for impact.
  3. Relentless reliability (in delivery).
  4. Adapting boldly (to changing environments).

Do you think you’ve got what it takes to be a great CEO?

[Related: What You Can Learn From the Woman Changing the Job Interview Game]

Miriam Grobman is the founder of Miriam Grobman Consulting who provides strategic advisory and leadership development solutions to companies who want to advance more talented women into leadership roles. She is also the creator of the Influence Masterclass and the Executive Presence Lab leadership courses for women.

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