The 10 traits every CEO needs

In today's volatile environment, every leader needs to wear many hats.

by Dr Kellie Vincent
Last Updated: 14 Jun 2017

Keeping up with constant shifts in the market and changes in business sentiment creates challenges for both today’s CEOs and the CEOs of tomorrow, as they work to navigate the volatile climate facing their organisations. In these uncertain situations, those who are not properly equipped with the essential qualities required of a leader will have difficulty in understanding the issues and making successful strategic decisions. The result: their business will undoubtedly suffer.

The acronym VUCA – which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and refers to the chaotic world we inhabit today - has become firmly planted in business language. One problem is that these four elements are often treated as one, resulting in strategies and solutions that are ineffective. Rather than avoiding making strategic decisions or prompting change due to a VUCA situation, identifying the nature of the context is the best approach for CEOs to be more effective in decision making.

So what do future CEOs and leaders need to be able to face different scenarios thrown at them by the real business world? We’ve identified a set of 10 essential attributes that work together to form a set of valuable tools to help make strategic decisions. Today’s bosses need to be:

1. A Leader: If you were to ask any management and leadership expert to cite a simple definition of leadership you may be surprised by how conflicting the responses are to this apparently simple question. Leaders must adopt an ethically led mind-set and demonstrate effective and innovative direction in order to motivate and establish high performing teams and organisations. To achieve this there is a need for comprehensive self-knowledge, an awareness of your personal strengths and performance as well as preferences. Being open to using feedback to enhance your capability is also key.

2. A Strategist: Being able to analyse complex business problems from different perspectives using appropriate knowledge and ideas. This is especially essential when dealing with uncertain environments where no strategic blueprints exist. The ability to evaluate options and appreciate the implications from trade-offs is needed to effectively manage risks associated with operating within the VUCA world.

3. A Steward: The governance issues and legal obligations that boards face cannot be underestimated. Taking responsibility for the financial, human, and natural capital, and ensuring none are overlooked is a major aspect of stewardship. This requires a very clear understanding of the nature of global business organisations; the national and global contexts in which they operate, appreciating the importance of relationships with internal and external stakeholders, and recognising how these relationship can be successfully managed in a sustainable and socially aware manner.

4. A Mentor who demonstrates the capacity to assist others to perform to their best means that not only do their successors and next generation directors develop, but also the mentors themselves learn and benefit from the experience. Reverse mentoring is a key discussion area at the moment and rightly so. Mentoring itself not only benefits the mentees but also provides valuable alternative feedback sources for mentors.

5. A Collaborator demonstrating the communication, networking, team working ability, and confidence needed to interact effectively with other people at all levels. Within business, the merits of collaboration have long been seen as beneficial for creating a competitive advantage. The technological developments and ability to collaborate are greater now than ever but these are skills that must be learned to maximise value rather than simply wasting time and duplicating effort.

6. An Investor, with the ability to make good financial and business decisions to achieve a range of objectives, using resources to the best effect. While this has been a longstanding requirement, the nature of the term investment has shifted. If we think about the importance of ethical investments and concepts such as social entrepreneurship and the circular economy which are growing as discussion areas for boards, we no longer view investment decisions as being short term and purely financially based.

7. A Change Agent who demonstrates practical ways of achieving change using experience from past performance to quickly assess how to ‘get things done’ – often in complex and messy situations. Within changing and complex environments, the soft skills needed to achieve this cannot be underestimated. The business world today is constantly evolving and the only certainty is to expect change. Being an effective change agent is central to the territory of directors.

8. A Technology Advocate demonstrating awareness of current issues and debates around the use of technology within organisations. They should be able to devise ways to improve their organisation’s resilience and capitalise on rapidly changing technologies. While we may get caught up in the latest tech buzz words and concepts (for example artificial intelligence or virtual reality) we must not lose sight that it has been technology that has driven every industrial revolution, and it is only now that, according to the World Economic Forum, we are thought to be at the tipping point of entering our fourth.

9. An Innovator demonstrating adaptability, originality, insight, and critical and reflective abilities, which can all be used in problematic situations. Gaining insights as a result of creative thinking is not always related to major technological developments, and it is counterproductive to pursue a fruitless race to become innovative. It is better to find the time, space and inspiration to identify solutions to an organisation’s issues, whether those are high tech or old school.

10. An Entrepreneur or intrapreneur in spirit, demonstrating willingness to take calculated risks to find innovative solutions and generate valuable propositions. Technically entrepreneurs are normally business owners, but other CEOs need to adopt a similar attitude - to be truly entrepreneurial takes courage.

Having the ability to draw upon these attributes to perform effectively can help aspiring industry leaders find the courage to step up to a CEO role. Mastering all ten attributes can set someone who holds a CEO title apart from a successful and outstanding leader.

Dr Kellie Vincent is MBA director at Westminster Business School

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