Blueprints of brilliance: The habits of top-performing CEOs
Business owners and CEOs stand as the captains of their respective ships, guiding their organizations through calm and stormy waters. But what sets apart the best-performing CEOs from the rest? It’s their vision, leadership skills and work habits.
As the group chair of a global strategy and management consulting firm, the Tom Oliver Group, I have had the pleasure of interacting with and advising Fortune 500 CEOs and billionaire business owners on how to get to and remain at the top of their game.
CEOs and business owners often ask me to share the tools, techniques, insights and principles that empower them to become No 1. Of course, many of these secrets we can only share with the inner circle of our highly selective group of clients. But in this article, I will delve into a few of the routines, tools and practices that distinguish top-tier leaders from the rest of the pack.
1. Early risers: The dawn advantage
Many top CEOs start their days early. Apple’s Tim Cook, for instance, begins his day at 3:45 a.m. This early start gives him a headstart on the competition, allowing for quiet reflection and planning before the business day begins.
I am an early riser and usually get up at 4 a.m. A friend of mine, a long-term Google top executive in Silicon Valley, asked me how I manage to do that effectively. While I still do not succeed in getting up at 4 a.m. every single day, I know that the secret of getting up early is to focus on your bedtime alarm in the evening, not on your alarm for your morning wake-up. Set a precise cutoff time at night when you drop everything and go to bed.
A word of caution: Not everyone is the same. We always tell our clients to stay true to their nature. If they are early birds and function better in the morning, we tell them to focus on cutting in the evening. If they are night owls and perform better at night—and some do—then we tell them to go with it and adjust everything else accordingly. The key principle is always: “Know thyself, and to thyself be true!”
Tool tip: Apps like Sleep Cycle help ensure a consistent sleep routine, ensuring CEOs wake up refreshed. (Disclaimer: When I list some tools and apps that help you manage your work habits, I do so because my team and I have found them to be valuable. We have no affiliation with any of them.)
2. Relentless prioritization: The key to CEO success
I keep driving this home with our clients, and it bears repeating forever, “Say no to the good to say yes to the great!” Anyone successful has far more options and opportunities available to them than they could ever act upon. The only way to be hyper-successful and accomplish the impossible is to laser-focus ruthlessly! In the fast-paced business world, the ability to prioritize relentlessly stands out as a hallmark of top-performing CEOs. But what does relentless prioritization mean and how can it be practically applied?
Understanding relentless prioritization: It is not just about choosing what tasks to tackle first; it’s about reassessing these choices in real time as circumstances evolve. It’s the practice of always focusing on the most impactful tasks and ensuring that one’s energy is channeled toward activities that align with the company’s core objectives and long-term vision.
Take Steve Jobs and Apple’s product line: When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he found the company’s product line sprawling and needing clarification. He reduced the number of products from 350 to just 10. This bold move of prioritizing quality over quantity led to iconic products like the iMac and iPod, setting Apple on a trajectory to become a tech titan.
More practical examples
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s singular focus: In the early days of Facebook, there were numerous potential directions the platform could take. However, Zuckerberg consistently emphasized the importance of “making the world more open and connected.” This singular focus allowed the company to prioritize features and initiatives aligned with this vision, such as the News Feed, while sidelining other potential distractions.
Brian Chesky and Airbnb’s user experience: In the initial stages of Airbnb, the founders realized that the quality of user-posted photos was a barrier to the platform’s success. Instead of getting sidetracked by multiple growth strategies, they prioritized professional photography for listings. This focus on enhancing user experience was pivotal in Airbnb’s early growth.
Tool tip: Trello, Asana and many other project management tools are popular among CEOs for task management and prioritization. But they cannot do the hard part for you: to decide what truly matters.
3. The best never rest: Continuous learning
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, attributes much of his success to his love for learning. He’s an avid reader and he believes in the power of being a “learn-it-all” rather than a “know-it-all.” I read books constantly whenever I have dead time: in the gym, while getting on a plane and so on.
I have an insatiable hunger for learning, and so should you. The best never rest! Most of all, I refuse to waste any time. I do not check or view social media. You will never see me look at Instagram feeds or any other time-wasting activity. Most people fail to realize how much time they have and how much time they waste every day.
If you are awake 16 to 17 hours a day, you have 1,000 minutes. Use them wisely!
Tool tip: Platforms like Audible let you listen to books during dead time. Apps like Blinkist offer quick insights into books, aiding the busy schedules of CEOs.
4. Physical fitness: A keystone habit
Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, claims that his fitness routine gives him an extra four hours of productive time every day. Whether kite-surfing or simple gym workouts, physical activity is a common thread among top CEOs, and so it has been for me. I am hyperactive, so I have no choice—I share that with Richard. I must do 90 minutes of physical activity six times a week to stay at the top of my game, deliver the best results for our clients, and to solve the kind of complex problems that our clients hire us to solve what everyone else has failed at.
How much exercise do you need?
Tool tip: Wearables like “Fitbit” or “Apple Watch” help track physical activity and ensure consistent health routines.
5. Mindfulness, meditation
Arianna Huffington, cofounder of the Huffington Post and Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, swear by the benefits of meditation. It aids in stress reduction, clarity of thought and decision-making.
Meditation is key. Meditation apps like Headspace and Calm are popular choices for guided sessions.
But the Dalai Lama, with whom I once had a private audience, says that “anything can be a meditation, including sleep.” And I agree. I love to meditate but I have seen CEOs for whom painting or windsurfing was their own best way to meditate. Find out what works for you and then stick to it! INQ
Tom Oliver, a “global management guru” (Bloomberg), is the chair of The Tom Oliver Group, the trusted advisor and counselor to many of the world’s most influential family businesses, medium-sized enterprises, market leaders and global conglomerates. For more information and inquiries: www.TomOliverGroup.com or email Tom.Oliver@inquirer.com.ph.