The Findings Findings from a database of 17,000 C-Suite assessments reveal that successful CEOs demonstrate that four specific behaviors that prove critical to their performance: They’re decisive, they engagae for impact, they adapt proactively, and they deliver reliably.
Our findings chanllenged many widely held assumptions. For example, our analysis revealed that while board often gravitate toward charismatic extroverts, introverts are slightly more likely to supass the expectatations of their boards and investors.
We were also surprised to learn that virtually all CEO candidates had made material mistakes in the past, and 45% of them had had at least one major career blowup that ended a job or was extremely costly to the business. Yet more than 78% of that subgroup of candidates ultimately won the top job.
In addition, we found that educational pedigree (or lack thereof) in no way correlated to per- formance: Only 7% of the high-performing CEOs we studied had an undergraduate Ivy League education, and 8% of them didn’t graduate from college at all.
For example, high confidence more than doubles a candidate’s chances of being chosen as CEO but provides no advantage in performance on the job. In other words, what makes candidates look good to boards has little connection to what makes them succeed in the role.
- In our data, people who were described as “decisive” were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs.
High-performing CEOs understand that a wrong decision is often better than no decision at all.
We found that among CEOs who were ired over issues related to decision making, only one-third lost their jobs because they’d made bad calls; the rest were ousted for being indecisive.
- We found that strong performers balance keen insight into their stakeholders’ priorities with an unrelenting focus on delivering business results. They start by developing an astute understanding of their stakeholders’ needs and motivations, and then get people on board by driving for performance and aligning them around the goal of value creation. In our data, CEOs who deftly engaged stakeholders with this results orientation were 75% more successful in the role.
CEOs who excel at bringing others along plan and execute disciplined communications and influencing strategies. “With any big decision, I create a stakeholder map of the key people who need to be on board,” explains Madeline Bell, CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “I identify the detractors and their concerns, and then I think about how I can take the energy that they might put into resistance and channel it into something positive. I make it clear to people that they’re important to the process and they’ll be part of a win. But at the end of the day, you have to be clear that you’re making the call and you expect them on board.”
Composure is a job requirement, and more than three-quarters of the strong CEO candidates in our sample demonstrated calm under pressure.
CEOs who engage stakeholders do not invest their energy in being liked or protecting their teams from painful decisions. In fact, both those behaviors are commonly seen in lower-performing CEOs
The ability to handle clashing viewpoints also seems to help candidates advance to the CEO’s oice. When we analyzed leaders who’d made it there significantly faster than average, one of the qualities that stood out was their willingness to engage in conlict.
When tackling contentious issues, leaders who are good at engagement give everyone a voice but not a vote. They listen and solicit views but do not default to consensus-driven decision making. “Consensus is good, but it’s too slow, and sometimes you end up with the lowest common denominator,”
- Our analysis shows that CEOs who excel at adapting are 6.7 times more likely to succeed.
“It’s dealing with situations that are not in the playbook. As a CEO you are constantly faced with situations where a playbook simply cannot exist. You’d better be ready to adapt.”
We believe a long-term focus helps because it makes CEOs more likely to pick up on early signals.
In our sample, CEOs who considered setbacks to be failures had 50% less chance of thriving. Successful CEOs, on the other hand, would ofer unabashedly matter-of-fact accounts of where and why they had come up short and give speciic examples of how they tweaked their approach to do better next time. Similarly, aspiring CEOs who demonstrated this kind of attitude (what Stanford’s Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”) were more likely to make it to the top of the pyramid: Nearly 90% of the strong CEO candidates we reviewed scored high on dealing with setbacks.
- Mundane as it may sound, the ability to reliably produce results was possibly the most powerful of the four essential CEO behaviors. In our sample, CEO candidates who scored high on reliability were twice as likely to be picked for the role and 15 times more likely to succeed in it.
Our data supports the paramount importance of reliability. A stunning 94% of the strong CEO candidates we analyzed scored high on consistently following through on their commitments.
The single most common mistake among irst-time CEOs— committed by a surprisingly high 60% of them—was not getting the right team in place quickly enough. For CEOs choosing talent, the stakes are high and the misses obvious. The successful ones move decisively to upgrade talent. They set a high bar and focus on performance relevant to the role rather than personal comfort or loyalty—two criteria that often lead to bad calls.