Leadership

4 behaviors that transform ordinary people into CEOs, according to a study of 2,600 leaders

Jeff Bezos, founder and Ceo of Amazon
Paul Souders | Getty Images
Jeff Bezos, founder and Ceo of Amazon

If you think all CEOs are Ivy League educated individuals who set their eyes on the C-suite at a young age, you're mistaken. According to Elena Botelho and Kim Powell, authors of the book "The CEO Next Door," "Even the most impressive CEOs often didn't start out knowing they were destined for greatness."

However, many of us believe the stereotype that an "iconic CEO is powerful and patrician, a bold, charismatic extrovert with a flawless resume," write the researchers. This makes us falsely assume that we are not "CEO material." To the contrary, ordinary people can also become CEOs, note the authors, as long as they have the necessary traits.

To uncover these traits, Botelho and Powell turned to a dataset of 17,000 leadership assessments from the research firm ghSMART. In partnership with professors from the University of Chicago and Columbia University, they selected a subset of 2,600 leaders to further analyze, and found a trend among successful CEOs.

According to their research, four simple behaviors can turn everyday people into powerful CEOs: decisiveness, engaging for impact, relentless reliability and adapting boldly.

1. Make quick decisions

According to the data, successful CEOs are decisive and are 12 times more likely to be high performers.

Steve Gorman, the former CEO of Greyhound, exemplifies why this trait is so crucial. When Gorman took over Greyhound in 2003, the business was losing money, according to the study. In addition, its parent company, which had just come out of bankruptcy, was ready to shut the doors on the company.

For four months, Gorman listened to his top execs create and dismiss plans to save the company but eventually he had enough. Among the many piles of data his team analyzed was a satellite map of the U.S. and Canada, which showed where all the nation's lights were concentrated (a reflection of population density). Unsure if his plan would work, he immediately set out to reshape Greyhound bus routes around these heavily populated regions. His strategy worked.

By the time he left Greyhound in 2007, the company reported $30 million earnings and was eventually sold for twice its 2003 value. The authors explain that Gorman was able to "push forward" not because he knew his plan would work but because he realized that a potentially bad decision was much better than no decision.

2. Get people to buy into your idea

To be a successful CEO, you must engage those around you and inspire them to deliver results, according to the authors. But it's not as simple as being nice or getting people to like you. In fact, nice CEOs can be a drag on an organization because they focus more on being agreeable than getting workers to deliver quality results, say the researchers.

To effectively persuade people to buy into your ideas, the authors say to do three things:

  1. Translate your vision and goals and be clear about your intent.
  2. Understand the emotional, financial and physical needs of the people who will help you deliver results.
  3. Establish everyday routines and habits to build relationships, which translate into action and eventually business results.

Steve Jobs, the late CEO and founder of Apple, created such a successful company because he engaged his employees and galvanized them to come up with innovative products and ideas.

"[Jobs] was in many cases very cruel to people and very unkind," Willie Pietersen, a management professor at Columbia Business School and author of "Strategic Learning: How to Be Smarter Than Your Competition and Turn Key Insights into Competitive Advantage," tells CNBC Make It. "But people gave him a pass on that because of his absolute brilliance, and the excitement and the exhilaration of working behind a brilliant idea."

3. Deliver consistent results

CEOs who consistently deliver results and successfully execute plans are seen as reliable, according to the researchers. Once a CEO is known for their reliability, their odds of getting hired double.

The authors also note that out of all four behaviors, "relentless reliability" is the most important for executive success because it also increases the odds of excelling.

"In business, reliable and competent people are cherished," write the authors. "Employers and clients are more apt to take risks on them and more apt to give them opportunities."

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson did just that when he created Virgin Australia, the country's second largest airline. The decision to launch this airline was actually the brainchild of his employee Brett Godfrey, who Branson immediately took a liking to because he was personable, detail-oriented and hardworking.

"[I] saw how he dealt with people in a personable manner and got the best out of them," Branson writes in his latest autobiography, "Finding my Virginity."

The billionaire was so impressed by his employee's work ethic that when Godfrey suggested creating an airline company in his home country of Australia, Branson bit. In 2000, Virgin Australia officially entered the aviation market with Godfrey as CEO ( a position he held until 2010).

4. Adapt to the circumstances

"To get to the top, aspiring leaders have to learn to navigate the uncharted," write the authors. They point to Kodak, Blockbuster and Borders as companies that failed because their leaders didn't adapt.

Their analysis also found that the CEOs who excel at adapting feel comfortable being uncomfortable. These execs understand that discomfort comes with change and learning. Furthermore, adaptable CEOs can let go of the past and focus on the future, much like Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

When Amazon.com launched in 1994, the company only sold books. Bezos then expanded to music and videos before asking customers what other products they wanted the company to offer. "The list came back incredibly long," Bezos told Charlie Rose in a 2016 interview.

Today, Amazon sells almost everything, from electronics to apparel. The retail giant also offers premium access to television shows, acquired Whole Foods and has plans to launch its own delivery service, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Bezos acknowledges that this ability to think long-term and experiment has contributed to Amazon's rapid success.

"We are very happy to invest in new initiatives that are very risky, for five to seven years, which most companies won't do that," Bezos told Rose. "It's the combination of the risk-taking and the long-term outlook that make Amazon, not unique, but special in a smaller crowd."

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