What Sets Successful Leaders Apart

Michael Haugen
Michael Haugen

The person at the top of any organization has an oversized impact on their enterprises, and top leadership changes, along with their root causes and related fallout, can have a massive negative effect on an organization and its customers, employees, patients, etc. Unfortunately, when things go wrong in the operating suite, often the damage cannot be undone. The practical reality is that today’s medical leaders are forced to optimize across two (often-conflicting) variables, specifically quality and volume. As a surgical leader, how does one inspire their teams to do the right thing when it might be at odds with the financial incentives? How can they espouse and live a value that might go against the bottom line?

While my company hasn’t directly studied surgical leaders, we have spent more than 20 years advising boards, administrators, and executives on senior leadership transitions, and have found the core reason that leaders falter is the gap between what boards believe the perfect candidate looks like and what actually leads CEOs to be successful in their roles.

In the recently published Harvard Business Review article “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart”, my colleagues Elena Botelho, Kim Powell, Stephen Kincaid, and Dina Wang present the findings from a decade-long CEO Genome Project. During this time, we accessed our database of over 17,000 executive assessments and analyzed approximately 1,000 CEO’s education, career history, behavioral patterns and results, with the help of economists from the University of Chicago, the Copenhagen Business School, and experts at SAS, Inc.

We learned a lot and busted many myths along the way. For example, you might expect highly successful CEOs to be Ivy League trained gurus with perfect track records. But 8 percent of the CEOs studied never even graduated from college, while only seven percent had an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school. Almost all CEOs studied have made major mistakes, almost half of them so significant that they either lost their job or significantly damaged their business.

So what does lead to success? Botelho, et al., identified four key behaviors that successful CEOs demonstrate. More than half of the top ranked CEO candidates spiked high on more than one of these four behaviors, while only five percent of weaker candidates did:

  1. Deciding with speed and conviction. It turns out that decisiveness is more important than being right the first time, with successful CEOs making decisions faster and with a good deal of conviction. Our study showed candidates who were viewed as decisive were 12 times more likely to be successful. Further, among lower-performing CEOs, only 6 percent of the time their issues were linked to making decisions too quickly, with the other 94 percent due to taking too long, or simply not deciding at all.
  2. Adapting proactively. When the macro environment changes, or your decision on specific actions turns out to be sub-optimal, they key is adapting, and doing so rapidly. Successful CEOs consider the future, think through possible scenarios, and keep a finely tuned eye out for signals that will show when change is necessary. CEOs who can adapt well are more than seven times more likely to be successful. Meanwhile, CEOs who dwelled on failures, rather than seeing them as learning opportunities, were 50 percent less likely to be successful in the long-term.
  3. Reliably delivering. Even more important than delivering desired results is doing so reliably. Of the four success behaviors identified through the CEO Genome Project, delivering results consistently was the only one that correlated with being selected as a CEO, in addition to performance in the role. In fact, we found that CEOs who reliably delivered were fifteen times more likely to be successful overall.
  4. Engaging for impact. A successful CEO cannot, and should not, try to do everything themselves. The best CEOs achieve buy-in from their employees, their boards, and other stakeholders by understanding their needs and drivers and aligning them with the goals of the organization. In our data set, being able to engage stakeholders and get them focused on results made CEOs 75 percent more likely to be successful.

While there is no one combination of skills that works for all top leaders across all markets and industries, focusing on these four behaviors will improve any leader’s likelihood of success. If you wish to someday lead an organization yourself, then you will be well served by focusing on building out your capabilities in these key areas.

To learn how you rate on the four behaviors, visit http://ceogenome.com/quiz/ and take our CEO Genome 5-minute assessment.