Want to be a great CEO? Be a pioneer, a missionary, a zealot and more to move an organization forward

Executive looking out window
"Mistakes and hiccups are no more than speed bumps to a good CEO," says Jeff Zinser of Right Recruiting. (Getty/Tom Merton)

CEOs have many skills they deploy to steer their company, but which characteristics and abilities are most important and why? Callouts by other CEOs include leadership, being forward thinking and being rainmakers when it comes to keeping the company’s energy high.

CEOs “should be visionaries, not merely executives at the top of a business,” said Dean Irwin, CEO of Ra Medical Systems, whose first-of-its-kind radiation ablation treatment for peripheral artery disease received FDA approval in mid-2017. “Good CEOs are pioneers: as they run their companies, they have a goal to build something that will completely transform both their industry and world at large.”

These executives give people “something new and meaningful that changes how they conduct their lives and interact with the world,” Irwin said. “Through a CEO’s vision, he or she needs to convey to management and all employees that the CEO is aiming to change the world for the better in a significant way.”

CEOs are “missionaries and zealots,” Irwin added. “While you could be the world’s best visionary, if you don’t shout your message at the top of your lungs, nobody will hear what you have to say. It’s essential to stand on your soapbox and explain passionately that you and your company are bringing something good, impactful and beneficial to humanity.”

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Leadership is key, said John Crossman, CEO of Crossman & Company, a commercial real estate firm based in Florida. “One of my goals is to empower the leaders that work for me and help to provide them with the tools that they need to be successful. I believe that the future of our business is going to be built on the strength of the leaders that I develop.”

“I would describe myself as a fearlessly ambitious CEO,” said Jon Lee, CEO of customer relationship management software builder ProsperWorks. “I’m passionate about meeting goals and I’m incredibly impatient about it.  I’m not afraid to take calculated risks to get there faster. I’m fiercely loyal to my team but I have incredibly high expectations. I make good on my two promises. First to my customers, to make them successful. Second, to my team, to show them what it’s like to win and make them successful.”

“I am a visionary risk taker,” said Andy Curry, CEO of Grizzly Marketing. “I see things being bigger no matter how big it already is. I like to take risks to see if I can get the business to the next level.” He doesn't take those risks blindly, however. “I also do this with a conservative slant because I'm risking my money.”

“A CEO today needs to be able to ignore mistakes and move things forward,” said Jeff Zinser, principal of Right Recruiting. “The best CEOs that I know combine a vision with a persistence that moves things towards the vision. Inevitable mistakes and hiccups are no more than speed bumps to a good CEO. They are expected to pop up but don’t slow progress towards a goal.”

Today’s CEOs are under tremendous pressure to perform and here are characteristics of those doing so successfully, according to Liz Bywater, president of Bywater Consulting:

  • Flexible. Able to navigate a frequently changing and often uncertain marketplace, new regulations, changing economies, increasingly sophisticated and pressing client demands, and more.
  • Open to new ideas. Reach out to their employees and customers regularly, to continually upgrade the customer experience, improve operational excellence, grow the business, and transform the market.
  • Inspirational. They are adept at motivating, engaging, and inspiring their workforce, customers, and even their competitors.
  • Authentic. They are true to their unique style, are honest and genuine in all they say and do.
  • Thoughtful. They take the time to be considerate, strategic, and deliberate in their actions. They do not simply attack the “fire of the day.”
  • Communicative. Share information, keep their employees in the know, reach out proactively to address changes and concerns.

"I strive to lead in a way that carries with it the characteristics of both a visionary and an explorer,” said JP Guilbault, CEO of Community Brands. “By maintaining a forward-thinking culture that encourages collaboration, learning and giving back, I've become a better decision maker, I appreciate successes, and I learn from failures. Most of all, I inspire my employees to carry the company's values and principles with them throughout their lives."

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CEOs “have to be able to delegate more than ever because business has become so complex, even smaller businesses,” said Scott Sobel, senior vice president with kglobal. “CEO’s must also surround themselves with staff and advisers who will provide honest and sometimes painful news. The days of the CEO king are gone.”

And don't forget that most important asset of all: a plan for how to lead an organization.

Most CEOs “neglect a vital dynamic when developing a strategy,” said Brent Filson, founder of The Filson Leadership Group. “I call it a ‘leadership strategy.’ Without a concomitant leadership strategy, a business strategy seldom measures up.  Whereas a business strategy seeks to marshal a company’s functions around central, organizing concepts, a leadership strategy seeks to obtain and organize the heartfelt commitment of the people who must carry out the strategy.  The business strategy is the steering wheel, the leadership strategy the drive shaft.”