HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A CEO?

HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A CEO? - Ever flirted with the idea you're CEO material? Matthew Gwyther suggests some key requirements for the post, and what to expect when you get to the lonely eyrie at the top. Work through our challenging quiz questi

by MATTHEW GWYTHER
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ever flirted with the idea you're CEO material? Matthew Gwyther suggests some key requirements for the post, and what to expect when you get to the lonely eyrie at the top. Work through our challenging quiz questions and check to find out what sort of dash you'll cut as boss.

Do you want to make it all the way to the top in your career? Are you one of those high-performing foot-soldiers with your eye on a steady progression through the company ranks until you become field marshall? If so, why do you want to do that? What is it about the role of chief executive that attracts you? Is it the power, the recognition, the responsibility, the 'big office', or is it really the dosh on offer?

As our global salary survey last August revealed, we pay our bosses well in the UK. They are better rewarded than in any other country except the US. The downside is relentless pressure and a 30% chance that you'll be fired before your contract has expired - the average tenure of a FTSE-100 CEO is four years. So don't think that once you are up there you are made for life.

Still keen to make the grade? Trying to establish exactly what set of skills is needed to be a CEO is difficult. Every business school or management guru will come up with the vital characteristics of the dream boss. Organisations vary in culture and size. Some need (and expect) a rabble-rousing Napoleon. Others want someone quieter, more along the lines of Lao-Tzu, the 6th-century BC Chinese guru who said: 'To lead the people, walk behind them.' The truth is that the role of CEO is probably the least understood within a firm. Key requirements, though, might include the following ...

A focus on what matters. Good CEOs take a bird's-eye view, set priorities and then get down and dirty with the one or two things that will really make a difference. If you can cut through the noise to the heart of issues facing the company, people will listen.

The ability to sell. CEOs have to sell the whole time - to clients, to investors, and in the case of ideas and change, to the whole company. If you're not from a sales background, you may need coaching in the art of persuasion.

Financial acumen. The CFO will handle the technical stuff but as CEO you'll need to be able to 'read the numbers' and make the links between what's on the page and what's going on in your company. This isn't just about budgets; it also requires thinking about the profit drivers You'll need to pay more attention to the balance sheet than you might have wanted to before.

A strategic mindset. Strategy is all about choosing the playing field on which your company will compete and then building advantages relative to the competition on that field. It's seeing how you fit into the big picture.

The ability to manage change. Driving change throughout a company is just like managing a department, but much harder. Your actions need to be bigger and bolder to have an effect - like acting on a stage rather than in a film. But you'll need to set an example and pick the right senior team, and to identify those most likely to champion, influence and resist what you want to achieve.

Leadership. This takes energy and passion. You need to feel inspiration yourself and to be able to inspire others. But it's not all fire in the belly and no foundation. A solid vision is vital to make it more than empty rabble-rousing.

Nous and strength of personality. The great CEOs know when to use logic and when to trust instinct. They know when to do something and when to let things be. They know when to lead and when to manage.

So, assuming you have all these qualities and you achieve your ambition, what is it like at the summit? An interesting report compiled recently by Ogilvy Europe, which interviewed 30 CEOs, described a concerned and sometimes bewildered group of individuals who were wrestling with near-impossible tasks. As Mike Walsh, chairman of Ogilvy Europe said: 'The things keeping them awake at night would be to do with their own personal performance as leader, not their business performance.'

Few CEOs receive much, if any, preparation for the role - only two of the 30 interviewed said they had been groomed for the position. First impressions were generally those of fear and surprise at the sheer scale and complexity of the role they had taken on. 'In this respect,' wrote the authors, 'becoming a CEO for the first time is a bit like parenthood - no amount of ante-natal instruction or babysitting can prepare you for the drama and the responsibility of having your own child.'

One negative aspect of reaching the top is loneliness. CEOs have more in common with other CEOs than they have with the people they lead. CEOs are set apart because the buck stops with them: a level of responsibility that does not suit everyone. Effective leaders earn respect - but they don't need to be liked. You may have to sacrifice that after-work drink with your former cohorts.

Still interested in beginning your climb to the top? Nobody ever said it wasn't tough there, especially in these anxious times. l

HOW WOULD YOU MEET THESE CHALLENGES? SIX SCENARIOS TEST YOUR POTENTIAL AS A BOSS

Select the response that you consider most apt for each question, make a note of your choices (i, ii, iii, iv or v), then work out your score by using the conversion table below

1. You run a software company. Business is brisk and there is activity across the company: developing/testing new products, building relationships with major clients, establishing new direct sales systems and delivering products and services to existing clients. How do you focus your efforts?

i. You are delighted to see everything going so well. This gives you time to think about and plan your next move. Never one to neglect the fundamentals, you hold your managers strictly to account on a regular basis.

ii. You keep an eye on all aspects of the business, but focus on coaching the product development team, because the future of the business depends on constant innovation.

iii. Rather than getting into the detail yourself, you concentrate on making sure your team has the right processes in place.

iv. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'. You keep a close eye on the numbers, but use the time to build goodwill with the press and the financial community.

v. Your job is to inspire the team, giving them a vision to help get them out of bed in the morning. But you're never as happy as when you're out with the salesforce talking to customers. After all, that's where the money comes from.

2. You own and run a high-end cheese shop with a thriving web site. A fast-food chain approaches you to supply quality cheese as a way of improving their cheeseburgers. The business is worth three times your current turnover. How do you respond?

i. This would be too big a stretch for your business, but you evaluate other options, including subcontracting the deal and spinning out a new company to supply burger cheese.

ii. Before accepting the deal, you approach City contacts to explore buying the restaurant chain for yourself and creating a quality burger franchise.

iii. You are concerned to protect your product's quality image, so although you're keen to win the business, you seek assurances about the storage and use of your cheese, and consult your team to assess the impact on your production process.

iv. You meet a senior executive from the fast-food chain and persuade them to take on national franchises for your traditional cheese company, allowing you to scale the business through locally managed outlets. You also do the burger deal.

v. You know that the way to impress your investors is by proving the scalability of your business, so you try to formalise the opportunity so that they will release the funds you require to meet the new customer need.

3. You receive confidential advance warning that you have personally won a national award for entrepreneurship as a result of the success of your current business venture. How do you respond?

i. You are honoured to be recognised in this way, and regard the event as a good opportunity to reward your friends and family for supporting you.

ii. It's great to win something, but awards ceremonies aren't really your style. You're more concerned with building the products, and the company.

iii. You are taking two days away to go cave diving off the coast of Borneo at the time of the awards ceremony. You arrange a video link-up to the ceremony to accept the honour.

iv. You invite your management team to join you at the awards ceremony, and offer a few well chosen words of thanks.

v. Any excuse for a get-together is a good one, so long as the organisers will agree you can take the entire company along with you. After all, everyone deserves a good night out after all their hard work.

4. Your are at your most persuasive when ...

i. You're presenting a logical case to investors, colleagues or partners - especially when you've spoken to them individually beforehand to ask for their support.

ii. You're talking about the products or services you have created - about why and how you believe what you are doing could change the world.

iii. You have the opportunity to talk about your own objectives - about the kind of person you want to be, as well as the specifics of the business you run.

iv. You have the chance to enthuse and energise a group of people, be they a team of employees or a group of potential investors (though you may prefer it if they don't try and dig too hard into the detail at this stage).

v. You are in conference with your closest team of colleagues dealing with a specific issue or question.

5. You are presented with a business proposal. You read through the executive summary and 30 pages of supporting argument, and finally you're faced with picking through the complex, detailed financial analysis. How do you respond?

i. You could work through the detail, but it's easier to work the numbers out yourself from first principles. So you put the report to one side and start the process from scratch.

ii. You check a few calculations just to make sure, then focus on the assumptions behind the model, and use your judgment to back up what the numbers tell you.

iii. You work through the analysis in detail to check that the figures stack up against the key assumptions. Only then can you decide whether to go ahead.

iv. You look the authors in the eye and ask them if they're sure. Then you rely on your own ability to make the project work - and to motivate your team.

v. The most important evidence for you is the feeling in your guts - though you prefer backup from the guys in suits. Having said that, even if they told you the numbers didn't add up, it wouldn't necessarily stop you pushing ahead.

6. Which of the following best describes your preferred leisure activities?

i. Any large social gathering, preferably well lubricated.

ii. Skydiving, parachuting, white-water rafting.

iii. Spending time with your family and close friends.

iv. Inventing fantastic machines, tinkering with computers, collecting DVDs.

v. Country sports, Radio 4, gardening.

< CONVERSION TABLE (Check your CEO profile overleaf) i ii iii iv v question 1 A C B E D question 2 E C A B D question 3 B A C D E question 4 B C A D E question 5 C B E D A question 6 D A E C B

CHECK YOUR SCORE

MOSTLY A's - The swashbuckler

You are a buccaneer-type CEO in the style of the great adventurers. For you, business is fun, and you relish the relationship between risks and rewards (the bigger the better, in both cases). A visionary, you have a talent for spotting a niche in a market, or a new or innovative opportunity, and for rallying your troops behind you. The flipside of your ability to look creatively at everyday situations is a tendency towards a short attention span. Sometimes you need to go more into the detail of a problem, and to be more patient in coaching and developing your staff. You're going to be most successful in industries where your personal brand can add value, and happiest running a portfolio company where you can create enough variety to keep your interest.

MOSTLY B's - The blue-chip CEO

You are a born CEO in the grand tradition. As well as fitting very comfortably into the 'big office', you are just the type of person who might be called on to chair a public enquiry or manage a new quango. You may not have a reputation for leftfield creativity, but you probably wrote most of the rules that MBAs learn at business school. You are cautious and solid - the ultimate safe pair of hands. You are good at dealing with staff and offering them long-term objectives, and you're a perfect 'helicopter'- moving smoothly from the big picture down to the detail. Your path to true greatness lies in conquering your fears - the fear of making decisions with imperfect information, and the fear of creative types. Use your formidable toolkit as a springboard, not a crash barrier.

MOSTLY C's - The technical wizard

You are the person who imagined the first video recorder, the first fax machine or even the Audi A2. You are a visionary with unsurpassed technical knowledge and an ability to create the next big thing. Although you are no slouch in traditional business skills, you may have a tendency to believe in your product before the market. You have excellent attention to detail, but it's sometimes hard to pull back and see the big picture. You probably have a highly loyal staff of technicians in your particular area who admire your vision and skills, but it can be hard to let other people get on with the day-to-day stuff for you. You could probably benefit from some senior-level business education to give you the same solid grounding in business as you have in your technical field, and it always helps to work on your communication skills.

MOSTLY D's - The ultimate salesperson

The silver-tongued charmer who could sell bacon sandwiches at a bar mitzvah. So long as you have a basic trust in the product or service you are dealing with, you can sell anything. Your keen nose for a deal and fantastic communication skills are well suited to many of the tasks of a CEO. You can talk to the press, convince new investors and (perhaps most importantly) rally your own staff to ever greater efforts, at the same time making them think they are doing something to make the world a better place. Just remember that some strategic thinking could save a lot of time and effort selling the wrong thing to the wrong people.

MOSTLY E's - Don't give up yet ...

You have some distinct business talents, but the CEO role demands an extra set of skills and personality traits that you may not yet have. This doesn't make you a bad person, and it may well give you a better chance of a full and rewarding social life. Even so, you shouldn't despair of ever reaching the CEO's office, if that's your goal; research shows that 85% of companies look in-house for their next head rather than parachuting in someone from outside. If you're aiming to boost that statistic, you'll need to excel in your present role, of course, but also to start thinking about what type of leader you want to be.

AN EQUAL SPRINKLING OF A's, B's, C's AND D's - Possibly perfect ...

The perfect CEO takes on different styles at different times. The ideal approach depends on whether you're selling your products or services, raising investment, solving problems, inspiring your team or any one of the myriad things that people expect of you. Just avoid picking the wrong style for the occasion; few teams struggling with a complex problem will appreciate a buccaneer.

This quiz was compiled with the help of Imparta - see Coming Up Fast.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today