What’s the No.1 thing that makes CEOs successful? | Inquirer Business

What’s the No.1 thing that makes CEOs successful?

/ 02:02 AM October 16, 2023



This is a question I get a lot because I have been working one-on-one with some of the world’s most famous business leaders, Fortune 500 CEOs and some of the world’s wealthiest business owners. As “a coach to the world’s top CEOs” (Fortune), a natural question many people have is: “What is their secret? If there was one thing you could name that makes these CEOs successful, what would it be?”

This is, of course, a loaded question. Why? Because there are many answers to it and many aspects that play into the success of the world’s top CEOs. Let’s start with a few things that they do not do.


Bad habits to get rid of

If you find yourself or the people at the top of your business having any of these traits and habits, it is time to reeducate them. The good news is that great executives are made, not born. I have found this great quote by Stephen Schwarzman, the American billionaire businessman, chair and CEO of the Blackstone Group, to be accurate in most of my interactions with the world’s famous business leaders.


Bad habit 1: “We know it all”

No habit is more detrimental than this one. My team and I find it repeatedly, no matter in which industry: The CEOs or business owners who vastly overestimate their knowledge, skills, talents, know-how—and that of their teams.

This occurs far less in the first-generation founders of family business empires. Because they built the business from the ground up, they are humble. They know their most significant asset lies in knowing what they don’t know and getting that expertise from others.

Many of our clients are family business conglomerates. We see that many risks come into play as soon as they hit the second generation. Very few people tell the truth to the person at the top. The formula goes: the wealthier and more powerful you are, the less people are being honest. The less they tell you the truth. And definitely, they do not want to bring you any bad news.

The map is not the territory

As a business leader, you need to make the best strategic decisions. You can only do that if you have the correct information available. Otherwise, you are flying blind. Or even worse, you think you see clearly, but you see an entirely different version of reality.

You may have heard the saying, “The map is not the territory.” In business, you can never, nor should you ever try to have 100 percent of the information. As a leader, you need to make fast decisions based on a few key variables. What if these critical variables are wrong? The more you sit in an ivory tower, the less you see reality, and the more you think you see a version of reality that actually does not exist. In short, you do not see the territory.

This is why CEOs or business owners make so many wrong decisions when they think they know everything and have all the necessary information. In my career, I have seen more CEOs fall in love with stupid ideas, their own or from their top management, than the opposite. Beware of the ivory tower! Get neutral experts to tell you what reality is like so you can make the best strategic decisions.


Bad habit 2: The CEO is too hands-off

Many business leaders need help with that. A client of ours—let us call him Francois—is the third-generation head of a wealthy head of a Swiss family business empire. He grew up in comfort and luxury, with many servants and admiration of the people around him because of his name, wealth and status. He got accustomed to the excellent lifestyle, the frequent vacations, the luxury homes around the world. He is still CEO but too hands-off. The vacations are too many; he plays golf better than his performance in the boardroom. Sounds familiar? To become a great business leader, there is no substitute for work. You have to put in the hours. You need to know when to take a deep dive into operations and when to take your hands off the wheel to let others do the work.

But one thing you can never compromise on is this: You have to be there. You have to be accessible. You have to put in the hours.

This is why Elon Musk slept at the Tesla factory when he saw the company’s risk of going belly up. He knew he had to be ready to go all in. And so do you.

Bad habit 3: Being short-sighted

Many CEOs, especially the ones who do not own a stake in the business, are more short-term focused. This is, of course, prevalent in some cultures more than others. The US has always been more short-term focused than many other countries. The next quarter, the next quarter! You cannot build a successful long-term business like that, let alone one that survives generations. No, you must have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish and then drive that vision, regardless of some short-term bumps in the road.

The secret: A powerful vision

If I had to pick one trait that makes CEOs successful, it is that vision. What do I mean by “vision”? A clear description, in writing, of what the ideal future purpose of the business will be, the value it will bring to its customers and most of all, a bright, shiny image of the ideal fulfillment of the business in the future, if nothing was impossible, and if all was going according to plan.

That is the vision that inspires others, attracts top talent and lets everyone catch fire so they can overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

One of our American clients, a powerful CEO/ owner of an award-winning family business conglomerate, did not have his personal and professional vision clearly defined. As a result, he lacked the energy and strategic foresight to make the right decisions.

How do you shape that vision as the CEO or owner? By thinking long-term, by sincerely caring about the business and the people it serves, by taking a step back and dreaming. Letting your imagination run wild, as well as being passionate about what matters most, is our purpose and the value we can provide for our clients or customers. You cannot do that by being short-term dopamine-focused and obsessing about the next quarter. This is why one of the first things we are doing with many of our clients is to sit down and shape that vision as clearly and brilliantly as possible. This is the fire that fuels everything else.

The second most potent trait of top CEOs

If I had to name another powerful trait of the world’s top CEOs, it is to nurture that vision. Remember it in the daily struggles and obstacles—to believe in that vision even when no one else does. It reminds me of one of the AirBnb founders who spoke about millions of customers they would have on their site when AirBnb was just a couple of laptops in a small office; or Jeff Bezos in his humble beginnings with a handwritten “Amazon” sign over the table in his one-room office.

It reminds me of the European self-made entrepreneur who reached $1 billion net worth on the Forbes list and told me, “Tom, even when I started when I had only one tiny store, I always thought: How big can I make it?”

Once you have defined your vision, be relentless. Never give up. Hold steadfast to your vision until you succeed. INQ

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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 [email protected].


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