Assess yourself: The essential CEO behaviors (based on a study of 17,000 leaders)

Forget the stories of born leaders. If you’ve got your eye on the corner office, executive coach Shoma Chatterjee knows which specific behaviors it takes to become CEO.

Her executive advisory firm, ghSMART, conducted a 10-year study of more than 17,000 C-suite professionals. The study – the results of which she discussed at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, shattered a lot of myths that most CEOs are Ivy League-educated, have flawless resumes, set their sights on the C-suite at an early age and basically follow what she calls a “solid linear path to success.”

What it takes to be successful

That’s good news for many of us who might feel that we don’t fit the typical CEO mold. The study, said Chatterjee, aimed to get answers to the questions many people (yourself included) might have about what it takes to be successful:

  • Who makes it?
  • Why do they make it?
  • What do they do to get there?
  • How do they get there?

3 ways to become CEO-ready

While every CEO journey is unique, there were common patterns that emerged in the ghSMART study about what things they did to become CEO-ready, including:

Make a bold move. Roughly 33% accepted the challenge of a role that was a big stretch from what they’d done previously, like managing a hundred times more people than they’d ever done or taking on roles that they didn’t have experience for. Taking a big leap is what helped them fight “all their imposter syndrome gremlins,” said Chatterjee.

Many of today’s female CEOs came from varied backgrounds and experience. Mylan CEO Heather Bresch started her career literally at the bottom, typing labels in the basement of the company’s plant. Progressive CEO Tricia Griffith began with the company as a claims rep.

Go small to go big. Sometimes you have to make a lateral move or move backward or sideways in order to get ahead. About 66% either:

  • started a business of their own,
  • went to a different country or region to launch a new division (like Ingredion CEO Ilene Gordon who moved to London in the 1970s, “when international work was almost unheard of for women,” she says) or
  • moved to a smaller company where they could assume greater responsibilities, “all with the purpose seeing a business end to end,” said Chatterjee.

Say yes to a “big mess.” About 30% dove right into a mess and that’s what catapulted them forward. They might have turned around a company’s declining profits, cleaned up a messy communications system, steadied a company after a nasty recall or stepped up to “many ‘ugly’ assignments” like KeyCorp CEO Beth Mooney did to make her mark.

4 essential CEO behaviors

While bold career moves can catapult you to the top, there are still behaviors that an aspiring CEO needs to acquire along the way. There are four behaviors that the most successful C-suite folks portray, the study found (the results of which have been published in a book called The CEO Next Door):

They’re reliable (“THE most important factor,” said Chatterjee). They execute. They’re very consistent. They’re not volatile. They put in the systems. They hire the right people. They’re never late to meetings. “You can run trains on their clock,” said Chatterjee.

They’re decisive. High-performing leaders are 12 times better at decision making than less performing C suite executives. This is because they’ve developed ways within their company to make complex problems simple so they can make quicker decisions.

They engage (without shying away from conflict). They bypass their own and others’ needs to the demands of the business and “are always thinking about ‘What am I trying to do for my company? Is this the right long term decision?’” she says.

They adapt. Think Kodak, Blockbuster, Borders – once hugely successful companies that failed to adapt. The best CEOs let go of the past and they’re willing to let go of approaches that might have worked before. They may not have all the answers, but they tend to ask the best questions. The best CEOs have learned to welcome discomfort, conflict and change.

Are you ready to make bold, unconventional and even risky career moves to catapult your career forward?