What Makes A Great CEO?

Jun 29, 2015 1 Min Read
Great CEO
Key Elements of A Great CEO

A guide for the young and ambitious

There are many young ambitious individuals who aspire to be chief executive officers (CEOs) at some point in their careers. But what does it take to be a great CEO?

By request of a young reader, let’s dive into this topic by first looking at what some global studies have shown about CEOs.

Most individuals on HBR's list of the top 100 CEOs are based in the US

Demographics of greatest CEOs

In early year 2013, a Harvard Business Review study published a list of the 100 best performing CEOs globally.

Interestingly, out of these 100 CEOs, only two are females. Eighty four per cent are insiders to the company they became CEOs of (promoted from within).

Only 27% are holders of an MBA, 61% were college educated outside the United States, 38% were college educated in the United States, and 1% dropped out of college.

Data from ceo.com and DOMO also indicate that 97% of the CEOs are married and have an average of 3.1 children.

Additionally, 11% are bald, 36% have receding hairlines and 53% have hair. This indicates that not all CEOs are close to retirement.

The likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page are a good testament to that, even though they weren’t included in the top 100 study.

Many well-known names are surprisingly not included in the list of 100 due to the parameters used for the study. For example, the survey excluded CEOs who had assumed their role before 1995 or after Aug 31, 2010. So Tim Cook of Apple was not eligible since he became CEO in 2011. Equally, Marissa Mayer is also left out from this study.

In addition, they included only those whose tenure lasted more than two years. The list, therefore, is not exhaustive of all great CEOs around the world. It is a good starting point however, to have a look at what seems to make a great CEO.

What do these demographics indicate? The first observation to make is that we are still dominated by male CEOs. The fact that only two women made it to the list is quite discouraging.

Nevertheless, twenty per cent of these top CEOs emerge and operate in Asia. This is good news for us here in Malaysia.

The world is opening up and is no longer dominated merely by Western big multinationals. There is space for anyone worthy to rise up the ranks and reach that level of the C-Suite if one wishes to do so.

Is there formula or defined career path to follow if one wants to become a CEO? Unfortunately not. However, there are common traits between great CEOs that you can definitely work on.

Traits of great CEOs

A study conducted by TheLadders indicates that there are certain personality traits that separate the truly great CEOs from the rest.

The survey was conducted by asking 1,366 jobseekers in the US$100+ market what skills or personality traits are important in a CEO.

The majority, 53%, chose leadership as the defining characteristic, followed by ethics at 19% of the vote. Strategy was third at 10%, and accountability fourth at 8%. The rest of the characteristics chosen were management (5%), creativity (3%), and industry expertise (2%).

A separate survey by TheLadders.com asked for criteria by which a CEO’s performance should be evaluated.

Once again, leadership was mentioned by the majority at 29%, followed by impact on shareholder value (22%), strategy for growth (16%), and operational excellence at 11%.

Creating an ethical work environment and creating a corporate culture each received 8% of the vote, and the ability to hit quarterly growth targets was voted by 6%.

Yet another survey asked 922 lower level executives the most important criteria on which they are evaluated, 39% once again chose leadership, 29% chose ability to hit quarterly growth targets and 13% chose the virtue of being willing to work hard. Industry knowledge was chosen by 10%, and creativity by 9%.

Let’s take a look at a few of these attributes, and see how young ambitious individuals can start developing these even from the beginning of their careers.


Leadership is the main quality that people expect from a successful CEO. And leadership comes by throwing ourselves into new experiences, uncomfortable situations, and situations that require us to take the lead and guide a group of people towards a common goal.

Experience in this can start very early – much earlier than the time we begin our careers after university.

If you look at all these well-respected CEOs, they are not the kind of people that sit and wait for things to happen. Even before starting their careers they were involved in many roles at school, university and the community that allowed them to practise their leadership skills.

Even at the beginning of your career, when your role is more likely to be one of a follower rather than a leader of a team, there will nevertheless be opportunities for you to polish your leadership skills, starting with leading (formally or informally) various projects, sharing your ideas and helping those around you with their tasks.

Just remember that leadership is not all about being the head of a group – it requires you to work with those in your team, listen to them, offer your help, and be more of a “servant leader” rather than an “autocrat”.


With the recent financial crisis that the world has experienced and is still suffering the consequences of, ethics is a character attribute sought after in good CEOs.

Even though it starts with values instilled in us from our childhood by our parents and teachers, it’s never too late to change. Reassess your values and stay true to them.

Stuart Dean, CEO of GE ASEAN once said that the worst thing a potential employee can say during an interview is that “I am willing to do anything I am asked”.

This doesn’t show flexibility and adaptability. On the contrary it shows lack of values and ethics.

It doesn’t reflect well if you are willing to leave any of your morals and values behind and follow what your employer wants you to do.

On the contrary, if you have strong values, and are determined to stick to them and find an alternative solution to a problem, this may gain you respect.


A CEO is one of the key people to determine the direction of the company – of course, he/she does not make the decision alone.

Even so, being able to look ahead and plan what is best for the organisation, taking into consideration the industry trends, the economy as a whole, and any other factors that may affect the company’s trajectory, is an important skill to develop.

And like all the attributes seen here as making up a successful CEO, it has to be a journey that starts from the outset.

It requires the ability to see way into the future, past the day to day operational tasks of your work, and come up with a plan/strategy, that would take you to the next level.

So from the beginning of your career, be curious about everything around you – examine decisions made by the management, and try to understand the rationale behind them.

Read and talk to people and find out as much as possible about the market. See whether you can share some of your ideas with your manager – they may or may not reach the top management, but at the end of the day your interest will certainly be noticed and when the time comes, you could well be rewarded for it.


Accountability is a virtue that many look for in a leader. Are you willing to take responsibility for your actions and those of your team? Are you willing to stand up for your actions, and take the hit when necessary?

Being accountable starts from the beginning of one’s life. If as a small child you broke something in the house and your mum asked you who did it, did you blame your brother or sister instead?

The stakes are of course higher at school or university. Not completing your part of a project may result in the whole team suffering or being penalised.

Even more so at work. The higher up you go the bigger decisions you have to make. However, the principle is the same. Are you willing to take ownership of your actions? This is something that needs to be exhibited early on in your career.


Being a good manager is an essential skill. It goes beyond calling the shots for the direction your team should be taking.

It’s about working with your team, understanding the unique strengths and weaknesses of each person, and putting them to use in a way that improves the performance of the team as a whole.

In addition to that, it involves being responsible for the personal progress of your team members, and requires you to work with them and plan their workload in a way that not only benefits the team’s objectives, but their personal development.

At the end of the day, a CEO is accountable not only for the profits of the company, but for the wellbeing and progress of the company’s people. As such, managing your people well is crucial, and it is also something that can start from the beginning of your career.


Coming up with unique solutions to problems is what differentiates certain leaders from the rest. There is no use trying to imitate your predecessors and the ways they attempted to solve problems.

Every problem is unique, despite the similarities, and every problem appears at a different time. The variables can change significantly.

It therefore takes a creative leader to come up with the best possible solution for the specific problem at hand.

Being creative, unfortunately, is something that cannot really be taught. It draws on experiences, ideas from anywhere (literature, other industries, past projects) to implement a plan or strategy that will make a difference and achieve the result you are looking for.

Industry expertise

There is no way around putting in long hours and experience to understand an industry. Industry expertise is essential for credibility and decision-making.

It requires years of experience, a deep understanding of competitors, what clients are looking for, and what the gaps are.

The time to start doing this, is not when you reach the CEO level, but when you join the industry at the outset. If you’re set on occupying a CEO position one day, get curious and make it a point to understand your industry in and out.

Drop us a line or two in the comment box below or email us at editor@leaderonomics.com. For more How To articles, click here.

First Published on www.leaderonomics.com and republished in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 30 November 2013

Share This


Tags: Executing Leadership

Eva was formerly the Research & Development leader at Leaderonomics. Prior to that, she was an editor at Leaderonomics.com. Today, she is the Product leader of Happily, an engagement app at Leaderonomics Digital. She believes that everyone can be the leader they would like to be, if they are willing to put in the effort and are curious to learn along the way, as well as with some help from the people around them.

You May Also Like


How To Demonstrate Leadership Qualities When Your Work From Home

As working from home has continued to gain popularity, the landscape of workplace culture has shifted in many ways. If you're looking to advance in your career, you'll want to show you have leadership skills that make you deserving of managerial or upper-level positions.

Feb 02, 2023 4 Min Read

Person looking unhappy starring at his laptop (Personal Values)

3 Ways to Resolve Personal Value Conflict in the Workplace

Qhairyl Iyzuan, Head of Government Client Engagement and Team Building at Leaderonomics talks about handling conflicting personal values in the workplace

Dec 15, 2020 24 Min Podcast

Foot step

Leaving a Mark That Goes Beyond Business

Mahesh discussed his passion for engineering with host Roshan Thiran, and talked about his dreams to scale electric mobility in his native India.

Apr 03, 2019 23 Min Video

Be a Leader's Digest Reader