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by Amy FrankoCEO

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be an executive-level leader or CEO?

I have had the privilege of moderating a panel of well-known CEOs.  The topic was on perspectives from the CEO suite, and our panelists shared insights on their pathways to the top – along with the challenges, the rewards, and the lessons.

These CEOs came from a range of industries, representing large organizations in banking, insurance, and aviation.  I had no idea what twists and turns to expect in the conversation, as moderating a panel of major CEOs was a new experience for me.  I think we all have our pre-conceived ideas of what a CEO may be like, and this group was a breath of fresh air – candid, approachable, and very willing to share their experiences.

Many ideas were shared, and I’ve created list of some of the real-world strategies that helped them to reach the CEO suite.  Even if your leadership goals don’t include the C-suite, these strategies will still help you on your personal leadership journey.

1.       Be approachable and accessible.  Treat others equally and fairly.  I have to say that each of the panelists embodied these traits.  Their positive demeanor, sense of humor, and openness were very apparent.  

2.       Learn everything you can about your industry. Each of these CEOs has been in their respective industries for decades, and mainly working their way up from entry-level positions.  One of our CEOs began his career in the mailroom, and another as an executive assistant! This enabled them to learn the intricacies of their industries from the ground up, and they were prepared when those executive-level opportunities presented themselves.

3.       Leadership is a daily practice. Every year the new “it” leadership book hits the shelves, with the latest trendy philosophies.  While it’s great to know what’s out there, keep in mind that it’s your daily practice and personal experiences that will make you a better leader.  

4.       Embrace opportunity and be willing to take risks.  Each one of our CEOs had a “sixth sense” for opportunity – whether in the form of a promotion, a move, or learning a completely new side of their respective industries.  With new opportunities come risks and rewards.  They were willing to put themselves out there, knowing that the risk may not pan out – but that it was worthwhile to their leadership aspirations and personal success.

5.       Build relationships.  I know this one may seem like a no-brainer, but when it comes to everyday practice, those who are contenders for the C-Suite make this one happen.  One of our CEOs interviewed the top 50 people within the organization – to learn what was working, what wasn’t, and what they wanted from the company’s leadership.  This approach opened the doors of communication, building valuable relationships and loyalty.

6.       Support is critical. Each of our CEOs said that asking for help and building a strong support system were integral to their success.  I think this one is especially tough for our women leaders out there who are inclined to do it all themselves.  Creating this support system requires us to find and hire the right people, and from there we have to trust them to do what they were hired to do.

The shadow side to this was what one panelist coined as “CEO disease.”  Often, the higher you climb, the more people are inclined to tell you what you want to hear, rather than telling you what’s really going on in the business.  A support system with the courage to give you the full story is priceless.  For these CEOs, it goes back to #1 on this list – being approachable and accessible.

7.       In a role such as CEO or other C-level executive, give yourself 2-3 years to become “good” at the job.  This one surprised me a bit, but our panelists consistently mentioned that it took time to develop a comfort level and become good at the job.  It reminds me of the phrase that “what got you here won’t get you there.”  I think many women leaders are waiting to have all the traits and skills necessary to even consider themselves ready for high-level positions.  This insight just goes to show that there’s a lot of learning to do once you reach the top, and to accept you won’t have it all out of the gate.

8.       When building a team, know what is “teachable” and what should be inherent.  Hire values and build skills.  Do you know the difference between skills and values when building your team?  Skills can be taught, values cannot.  When asked what they look for in building their C-suite teams, our CEOs listed values like integrity, energy, and ambition as non-negotiables. They also shared the importance of chemistry and fit with the company’s culture. Without these, the executive leadership team won’t make it in the long run.

9.       Be prepared.   One of our CEOs shared the importance of an “open-door policy” to the CEO suite, and the price for admission was absolute preparedness!  When you have that opportunity to present an idea or to participate in meetings with high visibility, you get one chance.  Make the most of it by doing your homework, asking intelligent questions, knowing what outcomes are important to achieve, and practicing your content to present.  You’ll be sure to leave a positive impression wherever you go.

10.     If you bring a problem forward, bring possible solutions with it.  Every one of our CEOs emphasized the importance of bringing forward solutions.  Anyone can bring a problem or complaint to the table.  Leadership is taking it a step further and proposing potential solutions to the problem.  If you want to make a huge impression, the next time you bring forward a problem, present a possible solution or two to go with it.

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© 2013 Impact Instruction Group

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