Humble Introverts Make Great CEOs
Picture the Hollywood stereotype of the successful American chief executive officer. This article originally appeared in the Journal Sentinel. To read the full article, visit Journal Sentinel.
For many, he’s a middle-aged, cigar-chomping, hard-driving, demanding, greedy corporate titan who places a higher value on the financial bottom line than the human condition.
To be sure, plenty of those fellows exist. However, a far-reaching new study may go a long way to shattering that perception.
The CEO Genome Project recently compiled a 10-year database of assessments, including comprehensive performance appraisals and extensive biographical information of 17,000 C-level executives, including 2,000 CEOs.
Researchers from ghSmart, a Chicago consulting firm, examined the data and made some rather surprising conclusions, which recently were published in a report titled “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart” in the Harvard Business Review.
The researchers identified four essential behaviors common among the most successful CEOs:
Deciding with speed and conviction. “They make decisions earlier, faster and with greater conviction. … In our data, people who were described as ‘decisive’ were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs,” the report said.
Engaging for impact. “Once CEOs set a clear course for the business, they must get buy-in among their employees and other stakeholders."
Adapting proactively. “Our analysis shows that CEOs who excel at adapting are 6.7 times more likely to succeed. CEOs themselves told us over and over that this skill was critical."
Delivering reliably. “Mundane as it may sound, the ability to reliably produce results was possibly the most powerful of the four essential CEO behaviors,” the report said.
I asked consultant Krister Ungerboeck to extrapolate the most important revelations from the study. Ungerboeck is a St. Louis CEO coach whose family-owned business provides software that helps destinations such as the Monona Terrace convention center and the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison manage their special events.
He said the conclusions of the study defy the CEO stereotypes, but they confirmed what he already knew: that the best company leaders tend to be humble introverts.
“It aligns with my experience. It’s about listening and asking questions,” Ungerboeck said. “To grow a business, the CEO needs to make a fundamental change in style from a talking style to a listening style and a question-asking style.”
Ungerboeck cited four common characteristics of CEOs who are humble introverts:
They know when to shut up. “You might think that the world’s top leaders would be gregarious, talkative extroverts, but the study findings showed otherwise,” he said.
They don’t problem-solve — they problem-find. “This allows them to identify patterns in the workplace and to find out where improvement and innovation is needed. They then delegate the problem-solving to the appropriate employees and trust in their ability to perform,” he said.
They realize how much they matter. “Nothing sets the tone for a workplace like a boss. This is a hugely powerful lesson that employers everywhere need to learn. When you walk into your office, you are impacting everyone around you in an immediate and immeasurable way. Your attitude is directly inspiring not only how hard everyone is working, but also how creatively they think and how cooperatively they act,” he said.
They are comfortable being uncomfortable. “You might think that it is wise to avoid areas where you don’t feel as experienced, but those are exactly the areas that could end up being the key to your success. For some, that might mean going to an anger management class. For others, that might mean spending the days on the sales floor and making cold calls for the first time in decades. A true leader isn’t afraid to risk failure, because they know that the only true failure is refusing to admit one’s flaws,” he said.
“If you are self-aware, engaged and truly willing to work on yourself as a person and as a leader, your improved management style will have a direct and positive impact on your employees and your bottom line,” Ungerboeck said.
Steve Jagler is the business editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. C-Level stands for high-ranking executives, typically those with “chief” in their titles. Send C-Level column ideas to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.