Insider Tips for Getting to the Top

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Stephen Miles Does the CEO of your company have what it takes to survive and thrive at the top? If not, maybe you do. Some experts believe that the time is right for you to stage a corporate takeover.

"As companies move from a 'survival' mentality to focus on growth and longer-term investment, many are finding that they need to reevaluate their CEO," says Stephen A. Miles, vice chairman of Heidrick & Struggles and head of the firm's Leadership Advisory Service. Miles and Nate Bennett co-wrote a book called 'Your Career Game,' which unlocks the secrets of professional leadership. "Boards of directors are demanding that their CEO possess particular qualities to help lead their companies into the new era," Miles affirms.

What particular qualities might those be? "To arm themselves for growth, boards are looking for seven specific criteria in their potential CEOs," says Miles. Here are his criteria for success as a chief executive:

1. Being able to stand up to a "stress test"

Just as financial institutions were stress tested to show the strength of their balance sheets, leaders also need to be stress tested. How has the CEO candidate held up under sudden pressure? What serious challenges -- bankruptcy, regulatory action, etc. -- has the potential CEO had to work through in his or her career? These types of events typically reveal character and capabilities.

2. Possessing a keen "risk radar"

The leader must be able to get the whiff of smoke before it becomes a forest fire. CEOs today need to use Socratic leadership to ask questions and test people and their organization as a whole. They must have the acumen and sense to know when something seemingly innocuous could actually carry catastrophic risk for the company.

3. Being immersed in the global geopolitical ecosystem

It is no longer satisfactory to "grow up" in a single company and single industry, and neither can CEOs delegate the delicate task of managing their company's governmental relations. Boards are looking for leaders who are connected to a much broader ecosystem that includes government leaders, regulators from around the world, special interest groups, activist shareholders, and peers across industries. CEOs must work across company lines, across industries, and across cultures in order to represent their company in a meaningful way.

4. Willingness to scrap old business models

Business models in every industry are changing and require leaders who are willing to experiment and throw away "the way things have always been done."

  • In the pharmaceutical industry, there is a tectonic shift in their definition of "customer": It is moving away from doctors and toward procurement and / or hospital administrators.
  • In technology, we see the transition from packaged programs to cloud-based computing and "apps," which are moving from mobile devices onto computers next.
  • In the airline industry, there is the shift in the carriers from simply "selling seats" to more of a merchandising approach where you can shop for your ticket, get an upgrade, buy your baggage allowance, get a meal, book your hotel, and rent a car -- all in one bundled package.
  • In the petroleum industry, leaders must consider the rising sense of nationalism in many of the countries they operate in and the fact that many nations have a preference toward their own national oil companies. Therefore they must be able to articulate a value proposition that makes sense for each country they wish to start doing business with.
  • In publishing, the death knell has been put on pause with the invention of the iPad and other mobile devices; the publishing industry has a chance for rebirth in the digital age -- if they can adapt to this new reality.

Your Career Game

5. Being able to innovate their way into productivity gains

As companies begin hiring again in 2011 and 2012, productivity gains will be harder to achieve. It will be critical for leaders to develop their own innovation engines to create opportunities to compete and in some instances defend their positions. Leaders across all industries must figure out how to invent -- this is how they will separate themselves from the herd.

6. Taking governance seriously

Both boards of directors and external constituencies such as politicians, activist shareholders, and regulators have been empowered by the crisis and are intolerant of any sense of imperial leadership. They are willing to take any leader on and make an example of them. CEOs must embrace governance in an open and transparent manner in order to effectively manage these constituencies.

7. Having a "purpose"

The simple yet powerful notion of "the profit motive" is not good enough anymore for these same constituencies. People are sick of the corporation-as-parasite, extracting value from whatever it touches. CEOs need to think about symbiotic relationships that still allow them to run profitable and sustainable corporations that also have a broader purpose for all of their stakeholders.

The CEO that is needed today is much bigger than simply an operations or finance master. A re-thinking of globalism, technology, and customers -- as well as an acute consciousness of how stress and risk can affect corporate viability -- is driving real changes in what it takes to thrive as a corporate chief.

If you don't posses all those qualities at the moment, fear not! This is a great list of characteristics you should acquire if you ever want to make it to the top.

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