What are the most important things to look for in a CEO?

Amanda Woodard


written on May 16, 2017

When engaging in succession planning, or selecting a new CEO, it’s worth assessing the common traits that allow most to get ahead.

An interesting report has come out that looks at one of the most scrutinised roles in corporate Australia, the job of CEO. It offers any HR professional tasked with the role of finding a new CEO some insights into what to look for.

Korn Ferry interviewed 11 business leaders who hold, or who have held, the position to find out how they got there and what happened along the way. One unexpected factor the interviewees had in common was how non-linear their career paths have been – or how much grabbing an opportunity has played a part: being in the right place at the right time.

The report, The C-suite, moving up and moving in, states: “Their journeys differed but were all influenced and, in some cases, defined by unexpected forks in the road, what we call “sliding door” moments, where a decision to walk towards or away from an opportunity has profound consequences on a career.”

None more so than Ann Sherry, executive chairman at Carnival, whose experience shows that women in particular need to “walk towards” opportunity if they are going to secure a CEO role.

“It was opportunistic but deliberate in the end,” she says. “From the HR role at Westpac, I moved to Melbourne to manage the Bank of Melbourne merger with responsibility to both customer and people, and after one year, spent several months working with the CEO. When he moved, I realised I wasn’t going to get the job unless I asked for it, and that was quite a turning point for me – realising I had to step up and ask. I also put my hand up for the CEO of Westpac New Zealand role.”

While it’s safe to assume that many CEOs are most likely the product of an elite education and the right connections, Stephen McCann, group CEO of Lendlease, proves that it’s the exception that proves the rule – and that benefits come with diverse experiences.

McCann comes from a working-class background and worked for a bookmaker at the races for five years, first pencilling, then as a runner. It was an important period for McCann, as he explains.

“I really believe it was a great early grounding in assessing risk. I think my commercial acumen was materially enhanced by that job because in a split second you had to be able to assess mathematically whether the risks were in your favour or they weren’t. I think exposure to a wide range of people was also helpful. There is no doubt it has given me a broader perspective.”

Another CEO, Clifford Rosenberg, managing director of Linkedin in south-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand, demonstrates how risk-taking is a characteristic of high achievers. He was head of corporate strategy at Vodafone, not a job that one would give up lightly – especially to join a startup.

“A good friend of mine contacted me to say that he was planning to list his company, a wireless application service provider, iTouch. He asked if I might be keen to start the Australian office in advance of their IPO. It was a tough decision to leave Vodafone, but it was a defining moment as it enabled me to develop essential skills in terms of what it takes to successfully run a startup and build a winning team. It also enabled me to cultivate some very important relationships that have been instrumental in helping me during the course of my career,” says Rosenberg.

Given that Australia has 35 per cent more CEO turnovers in leading companies compared to the rest of the world, the need for individuals to be resilient and confident in the role seems desirable.

Darren Steinberg, CEO of Dexus property group, attributes his confidence to playing sport at an early age.

“I was very focussed on sport in my youth and played field hockey and cricket. I think playing a team sport is important in the formative years. Whatever you choose to play, you build resilience, which is a really important skill to have in the business world. You can tell people who aren’t used to failing and getting straight back on the horse.”

Borrowing from Steinberg’s idiom, it would seem that there are ‘horses for courses’ when looking for a top-performing CEO. It’s just that they might not be the obvious thoroughbreds you first thought of.

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