CEOs sound off on what it takes to be a good chief executive

A group of executives work together to solve a puzzle
Attributes from deep ties to the job to quick thinking go into being a standout CEO. (Getty/ALotOfPeople)

CEO to CEO.

With the new year here, some chief executives weighed in on what they feel are universal traits to be a good, if not great, CEO. The attributes they cited range from having deep emotional ties to the job and employees to quick thinking skills to making sure everyone understands how the company works. In total, the three guidelines they each offered make a case for a technologically astute organization that has a very human feel.

Dr. Rao Papolu, CEO of software vendor Cavirin Systems:

  • The typical CEO is faced with more data and decisions than can be consumed and properly addressed. He or she must be able to quickly triage which decisions are critical, which can and should be effectively handled by staff, and which should be filed away as input for the future. The maturity to be able to effectively do this is an acquired skill, but it also requires trust by the CEO and an ability to let go when required.
  • Emotional discipline and maintaining one’s cool under stress helps long-term. The company’s culture starts at the top, and there is enough conflict outside of work to have to come into an environment full of infighting and a lack of respect.
  • The CEO must create an environment of honesty and respect. Too often, corporate policies are looked at as just a nuisance or something quickly forgotten, not internalized or embraced by senior leadership. The CEO is the keeper of the culture and must maintain a zero-tolerance policy.

Ben Carcio, co-founder and CEO of Promoboxx, a retail marketer:

  • Educate everyone on your team on the metrics that drive the business. Transparency across the organization helps employees understand big company decisions and each individual’s role in helping the company grow and achieve its goals.
  • Create and reinforce shared values across the company. At Promoboxx, our company values shape who we are and how we do business. Our values are displayed on our office walls. Every employee knows them, and we weave our values throughout everything we do: the hiring process, budgeting, our all-hands meetings and even our board presentations. Understanding what is important to all of us, and the company, helps us work well together and motivate each other to reach our goals.
  • Feed and hydrate your team. An employee who feels valued and appreciated works harder toward the success of the company. Creating opportunities for employees to gather around food and drink helps us to get to know each other, have a bit of fun, and really enjoy working together.

Zahra Kassam, CEO and founder of Monti Kids, an educational toy maker:

  • The most important qualities a person needs to be a great CEO are focus, the ability to make tough choices and perseverance, and in that order. As the CEO of a startup, one can easily get distracted by the latest shiny object, be it trying to develop a new business offering before you’ve solidified market share of your core product, to partnering with a company that makes zero sense given your target demographic. So, focus is incredibly important and a company will fail without a CEO that is disciplined.
  • Whatever size a company is, the ability to make tough choices will always be important to being a successful CEO. A smaller company may have difficult decisions about money and where to spend it, whereas a larger company may need to worry about which division will be laid off or whether that Super Bowl Ad is worth the multimillion-dollar risk.
  • Perseverance is a must for any CEO. If you’re a CEO of a large corporation, you’ll need the ability to show leadership through any storm. You are the face of the company. If you’re a startup, this can be even more challenging, maybe because 90% of all startups fail. A CEO of a startup needs to believe he or she will succeed against all odds.

Lyron Bentovim, CEO of the Glimpse Group:

  • CEOs need to be able to know how and when to take risks. You need to have the confidence to take a leap, even if you can't exactly see the landing pad.
  • Everyone has different skill sets. The mentality to maintain is that “I can’t” doesn’t exist. And it’s not because someone is able to do everything, it’s because everyone needs to feel comfortable asking for help when they need it, at every level, even and especially CEOs.
  • Some problems need a lot of hard work and a creative solution to solve. Your challenge as a leader is to find the correct approach to each problem.

Chris Rothstein, CEO of Groove.co:

  • A great team: One of the reasons that recruiting is extremely important to CEOs is because they can’t achieve any of their goals without a strong team working with them. Though a seemingly simple process, finding the right people and key leaders to place in each area of the business requires diligent work.
  • As the leader of a company, a CEO sometimes can’t discuss difficult or troubling issues with just anyone. Because of this, it’s imperative that a person in this position has someone who can be their sounding board—a spouse, a mentor, a fellow CEO—with whom they can talk through difficult issues.
  • CEOs should set a vision toward which the entire company should constantly be working. But it’s not enough to simply state the mission and goals of the company; rather, the CEO should create a plan for how the company will achieve its stated goals. Based on something called the “standard of principle,” businesses are more successful once they state the ways they plan on achieving their objectives. This includes how decisions will be made, how managers should push their direct reports to live up to that bar, how the company develops and maintains an enjoyable culture, etc. Whatever your goal is, create an actionable set of guidelines for the company to use while working toward them.

Jennifer Schenberg, CEO of communications firm PenVine:

  • Empathy to understand customer, employee and stakeholder concerns, because business does not always run on positive sentiment. It’s about listening and processing feedback and then addressing those concerns and/or needs.
  • Patience to listen to your team, customers and stakeholders and understand what they need to continue growing with or without you, and make the right decisions that are in their best interests, while ensuring the best interests of the company and its employees.
  • Passion in every communication and interaction about the company and its lifeblood: employees. Passion about your team, services and/or products pulls through every interaction.
Read more on