How Top-Performing CEOs Stand Out

By Stephen Garber

The stereotypical CEO is characterized as a charming, tall, white man educated from a top university, a strategic visionary on a vertical career trajectory with the ability to make perfect decisions under pressure. How many such people do you know? None, I bet.

Today’s business world is faster, smarter and, in many ways, younger than ever before. You’re likely either in a tech-based startup or business—or you’re about to choose, or be forced—to transform your business to a “digital” model. Or, you’re already doing so. That takes real courage, conviction, investment and leadership.

What should that leadership look like?

A recent 10-year study—the CEO Genome Project, by Chicago-based leadership adviser ghSmart—busts a few myths. (Google it. It is rich with insight and information.) The firm used its proprietary database containing more than 17,000 in-depth assessments of C-suite executives, including 2,000 CEOs. Some surprising findings:

• Introverts are slightly more likely than extroverts to surpass the expectations of their boards/investors.

• Virtually all CEOs have made substantial mistakes, and almost half of them had at least one major career blowup.

• Academic degree didn’t correlate to performance. Less than 10 percent of the CEOs they evaluated had an undergraduate Ivy League education.

• Confidence in interviews did not matter. High confidence more than doubles a candidate’s chances of being chosen as CEO but provides no advantage in performance on the job.

• Four specific behaviors prove critical to their performance. Research and experience suggest that when leaders aspire to move into the corner office and deliberately develop these behaviors, they dramatically raise the odds that they’ll become a high-performing chief executive.

In our next four articles, we will address each of these behaviors in depth. Here’s a quick summary:

1. Deciding with speed and conviction. No need for “all the data,” and comfortable with ambiguity.

2. Engaging for impact. High emotional intelligence—knowing what motivates various stakeholders, and how to works best with those motivations.

3. Adapting proactively. Stuff happens, and how you respond off-script matters most.

4. Delivering reliably. It’s all about results. Systems and processes matter. ♦

Stephen Garber is director of Third Level Ltd. Contact him at 561.752.5505 or

Stephen Garber
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