Becoming a Great Leader – Advice from 18 Chief Executives to the World.

JULY 2012 • Tsuwa Thompson

In This Article

Booz & Company carried out a study in 2011 where international Chief Executives shared the challenges they faced on the job, their successes and what they
would have done differently in the first year on the job. The Chief Executives' thoughts were distilled into an article tagged "Navigating the First Year – Advice from 18 Chief Executives" and was published in Booz & Company's online magazine strategy+business (May 24, 2012).

I found the article to be simple but revealing and it did strike quite a few chords. I learnt quite a few things from the different CEOs and they reinforced many lessons deep within my mind.

This article is a synopsis of the lessons I learnt from the advice of the 18 Chief Executives. I have attributed each of the 26 lessons to one or more of the CEOs to give credit to who credit is due. I am sharing these lessons with you in the hope that you may not just become better, but become a great leader.

26 Lessons from 18 Chief Executives.

Self Preparation & Getting Advice for the Role.

  1. Ensure that there is a smooth and planned handover that allows you flow into the CEO role. It's a new job and believe you me the demands and pressure will be new and much more than that of your former role. A planned handover in terms of time to adjust won't harm you at all. Ronnie Leten.

  2. Be apt to learn. It's all about the attitude – you can wear the role in humility or let the role wear you and in the process change you into a corporate tyrant. Severin Schwan.

  3. Focus on closing knowledge gaps as quickly as possible by finding innovative ways to reduce the learning curve period. One of the best ways to do this is to engage mentors at every level of the organisation – you get a holistic view into the running of the company and that is precious to any CEO. Severin Schwan.

  4. Don't upset the status quo without a good reason. Learn the whys and the methods before suggesting and or making any changes. This is where the attitude of humility plays a great role. Jose Antonio do Prado Fay.

  5. Get the conversation going organisation wide and consolidate it in an atmosphere of trust. Let openness, sincerity and candour be the watch words that govern communication at all levels. More importantly, listen to the voice of the firm, that is the staff and tap in on their opinions, advice and innovative streaks. One of the ways to harmonise the multiple voices that you will hear is to use a standard questionnaire to streamline the process and apply it to a sample set drawn from all organisational levels. Kunio Noji, Chip Bergh & Britaldo P. Soares.

  6. One thing is clear, you are important in the scheme of things so ensure that you are in top shape to deliver the required results. Lots of self reflection, a high level of emotional intelligence and continuous self development are all on the prescription list. In prioritisation of the key issues, don't forget yourself. Enéas César Pestana Neto.

  7. No CEO can succeed without leveraging on his/her people – individual skill no longer matters in the scheme of things. Leaders need to talk to those who have a companywide view of the business and best still ensure they are on their top team. Ian Livingston.

    Choosing the Top Team.

  8. Putting a top team in place isn't the easiest of things. There is a need to ensure organisational stability in the midst of all changes. However, as the CEO, you must have a clear agenda for your top team that must be achieved within well defined timelines and boldly. One major challenge will be managing former peers – whatever happens, do your best to maintain the cordial relationships and work with them to deliver value for the company. Ronnie Leten, Ahmad Abdulkarim Julfar & Saud Al Daweesh.

  9. Begin with the end in mind says Stephen Covey. Similarly, define your organisational structure with the end in mind and not from a temporary perspective. Next step, study the team well and realign them to fill the positions accordingly. This planned and deliberate method will prevent undue disturbance to the smooth flow of operations as you tackle the strategic agenda. Osman Sultan & Thomsa Menezes.

  10. Changes in the top team may lead to employees losing focus temporarily – it is to be expected. The key thing is to get everyone back on track as quickly as possible after the changes have been made. Adequate and targeted communication is critical in this process as people need to appreciate the dynamics behind the change. This applies to the Board as well and one must carry the HR team along. Masami Yamamoto.
  11. Engaging the Board

  12. The Board has a major role to play in the success of the company and you can't handle the company without them. Carry them along in your decision making but let them play their role while you and your management should play your own distinct role. This will happen over time and a little diplomacy will keep the ship afloat. The delegation of authority document is critical in defining who does what – hold on to it and embrace good corporate governance. Kunio Noji, Chip Bergh & Britaldo P. Soares.
  13. Strategy & Culture.

  14. One may be the CEO, but one is not a demi-god that can change a whole company system at will. Be it the strategy or culture, take time and learn the way things are before you make major changes. Kunio Noji.

  15. Strategy matters but if the people, systems and execution culture are not in sync with the proposed strategy, the results will be a dismal cry from the set expectations. You must couple your strategy to the culture by deploying policies, processes, standards and systems that are founded on the culture and tailored to deliver the strategy. Ian Livingston & Gonzalo Vargas Otte.

  16. Don't allow a one sect (department/division) led organisational culture – carry everyone else along. Push for a culture that is all inclusive and which espouses loyalty, confidence and candour. Once you succeed, don't allow any culture duplicates and reward people for standing true to the core values. Right from the Board to the frontline staff, let everyone speak the same mind, let them adhere to one culture. Romain Bausch, Andre'-Michel Ballester & Ahmad Abdulkarim Julfar.

  17. The truth is this, for companies and their cultures to thrive, people must face facts and uphold integrity. To allow for this, engage staff as frequently as possible in an honest manner and via as many forms of social media as possible to get their candid feedback. Ian Livingston & Masami Yamamoto.
  18. Dealing with Pressures

  19. There will always be pressures, within and without. However, if the CEO has a good support system that he/she can lean on for advice and encouragement, he/she will surmount the challenges. Ian Livingston

  20. Family is so important in all of this. They help you unwind, they remind you that you are no superman or superwoman but just a loving person that they love and will stand by. Family helps to take away the stress and to put things in perspective even if they don't understand strategy or cashflows. Ian Livingston

  21. Next to your family are your inner team; even Jesus Christ had an inner team (Peter, James and John). Your inner team must be capable, willing and loyal standing by you and the company in the good and the bad times. You can't run the organisation by yourself – gone are the days of corporate heroes now success is found in social teams. Ian Livingston

  22. Despite all the help you can get from these two groups, you need to stand strong as an individual to play such a critical role. Life as you know it has changed and you must adjust the way you do things to stay on top of your game. "The ability to sleep on planes and read in cars is really a big help!" – Ian Livingston.

  23. One of the greatest pressures is the need to make an impact immediately one rises to the top. The truth is that people are watching but don't let that have a negative influence on you. Rather use the limelight to kick start your agenda and give them a good show while walking the talk. The power to change the status quo is yours but apply humility and analytical thinking to the change process to ensure effectiveness. Carry your top people along and let the impact be customer focused and customer driven or it will eventually fail. Severin Schwan.
  24. Managing Stakeholders

  25. Knowing your stakeholders allows you manage them effectively for the benefit of all parties and the company. You can't create sustainable value for people and parties you don't know and understand. Romain Bausch

  26. The first step is to identify your stakeholders which you can do through talking with key people in your organisation. The second step is to design a stakeholder radar graph that allows you monitor these relationships and derive maximum value from them – a sample below is based on advice from Osman Sultan. "As a CEO (company head) you cannot afford the luxury of not being active on all these fronts." Osman Sultan

  27. Next step – actively build stakeholder support. Stakeholder support can be won by building trust; transparency is absolutely necessary for you to win their trust. Say it on time, say it as it is and genuinely seek support. A word of caution, support must be evaluated vis-à-vis the company's interests. Severin Schwan

  28. An interesting stakeholder group to manage are shareholders. So many shareholders want to see returns immediately and at times this is not congruent with the company's plans. One must work with the Board to carry shareholders along so they understand the long term strategic plan of the company and how the plan will lead to sustainable earnings for them and all others. Masami Yamamoto
  29. Planning for the Future

  30. The short term is but two to three years of your reign at the helm. On the other hand, the long term is five to ten years away. So many business leaders get caught up in delivering quick wins and putting out fires that they forget about the long term. Don't get lost in the short term or else, when yesterday's future becomes your today you will not be ready. A balanced plan with short and long term focal points is key to sustainability of the company. André-Michel Ballester

  31. Opportunities don't come around all the time; they are like eclipses of the sun. Cash in on opportunities if they will benefit the company. What is needed is more action and less talk; calculated risks and not paralysis of analysis. "In all labour there is profit, in plenty talk comes penury" – Bible. Ahmad Abdulkarim Julfar

Let me round up this article with two quotations from two men that have influenced life as we know it in the hope that their simple words will take you a step closer to being a great leader.

"In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed". Charles Darwin

"Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value". Albert Einstein

About the Author

Tsuwa Thompson is the Chief Executive Officer of RtHE Consult Limited.


  1. Favaro, Ken; Karlsson, Per-Ola; Neilson, Gary L. "Navigating the First Year – Advice from 18 Chief Executives". strategy+business magazine. May 2012. July 3rd, 2012