June 15, 2009
Four qualities of a good CEO
Experts single out common traits of effective leaders
By Gabriel Chen
WHAT makes a good chief executive officer (CEO)?
We are in the midst of a global financial crisis and this is a question that often comes up during trying times, as employees, more than ever, rely on the strong leadership of their corporate chief to steer the firm in the right direction.
According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as CEOs, while organised, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to achieve success in the C-suite.
Mr Brooks, in a recent opinion piece, said traits such as being a good listener, a good team builder and a great communicator do not seem very important when it comes to leading successful firms.
Still, there are others who claim that personality matters, as CEOs should have the ability to connect with people.
'People skills may be very important when managing senior family proprietors in a family-owned business,' said Mr David Powe, managing director of Strategic Search Partners.
The famously faddish management literature often claims there is a single 'secret' to leadership. It can be anything from time management and creativity to strength and sensitivity.
Yet some business gurus argue that there is no such thing as a 'leadership personality'.
The late Peter Drucker, for example, pointed out that Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery and Douglas MacArthur were all highly effective - and highly visible - leaders during World War II, but no two of them shared any 'personality traits'.
The renowned management consultant said effective leaders see leadership as responsibility rather than as rank and privilege. This means that when things go wrong - and they often do - these leaders do not blame others.
While there is no 'right formula' for good management, there are certainly some common qualities that effective CEOs embrace.
We spoke to headhunters and consultants, and singled out four such qualities.
Desire and energy
A SUCCESSFUL CEO must have the desire or will to achieve, the energy, and the intellect.
Mr Tan Soo Jin, a director at Amrop Hever Group, came to this conclusion after spending more than 30 years as an executive search consultant placing very senior people.
'The desire to achieve actually describes the passion in any good leader,' he said.
'The second, energy, describes his lasting capability. Too many so-called leaders fail because they give up too easily.
'The third - intellect - has very little to do with a university degree. Some of our best entrepreneurial forefathers did not have the opportunity to go to university, but have succeeded because they are very intelligent people.'
Passion is a CEO attribute that Ms Annie Yap, founder of search firm AYP Associates, can relate to from her experiences with her former CEO, Dr Giam Cheng Lan, of recruitment firm GMP Group.
Ms Yap said Dr Giam had so much passion about the business that she kept saying she was 'building a company that lasts'.
Makes tough calls
THE CEO must dare to make decisions, especially the hard ones, whether they concern layoffs or pay cuts, or other difficult strategic decisions.
When making the tough calls, he must also have the ability to communicate his decision appropriately.
'Compassion isn't often a term associated with the most successful global CEOs, and they are paid to make the right commercial decisions for the welfare of the organisation and its shareholders,' said Mr Guy Day, managing director at recruitment agency Ambition.
'That said, CEOs don't always need to be ruthless, and the manner in which difficult decisions are communicated, particularly around job cuts, can make a real difference.'
Mr Tim Hird, managing director of human resource consultancy Robert Half International, said that not only do CEOs need to communicate, but they also need to do so consistently and sincerely.
LEADERS with integrity are consistent, willing to trust others, and care about their employees' well-being.
These leaders are honest and transparent in a way that allows others to understand not only their decisions, but also the reasoning behind them.
Moreover, when they make big decisions, they hold themselves accountable for them, said Mr Leon Perera, group managing director of Spire Research and Consultancy.
Ms Gina McLellan, Singapore country manager of search firm Hudson, said a CEO should commit to 'conducting himself with the highest standards of ethics and integrity which will inspire people's confidence and trust'.
Mr Bill George, retired CEO of medical technologies provider Medtronic, once termed traits such as integrity and character 'authentic leadership'.
Simply put, this is the quiet kind of charisma that puts a sense of values and purpose ahead of magazine covers.
Vision and strategy
THE CEO must have a dream, a mission, a strategic intent, a vision and he must be able to articulate that vision.
'In the political sphere, (former United States presidents) John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and our very own Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew were masters of the art of communication,' Mr Tan said.
Mr Day said many CEOs are focused on short-term profitability and cash flow, both of which are critical.
But a successful CEO, he added, also needs to communicate to the organisation that there is a 'clear plan' to where the business is headed, and despite the challenges in the economy, that path is broadly being followed.