The Top Three CEO Characteristics: Lacklustre Execution, Poor Communication Skills and Abrasive Management Style

What makes a truly great CEO? The answers vary but usually include the characteristics of risk-taking, optimism, inspiration, decisiveness and passion. However, vertical promotion from within an organisation can leave the new CEO feeling isolated, insecure and inept.

What is it about the transition to a more senior, more highly paid role, with its attendant rewards and responsibilities, that sometimes causes people to exhibit qualities which are seemingly out of character and which may even call into question their appointment in the first place? If a board has decided to promote someone to the most senior level of management, they clearly think that person has the potential to shine in the role and lead the company on to further greatness.

However, in some instances, upon obtaining the role that they have coveted, a new CEO’s performance will start to dull, their ability to communicate effectively will stall and they will begin to rub people up the wrong way. The reasons for this are complex and numerous but can include a feeling of unpreparedness for the new role, a disconnect from their peers who perhaps applied for and didn’t get the job, and a feeling of insecurity that they are not the right person for the role after all. These issues can manifest themselves in lacklustre execution, poor communication skills and an abrasive management style which will inevitably impact on the business and its performance.

One issue which many newly-appointed CEOs encounter is a feeling of isolation. Despite all the technical abilities which they possess which made them great CIOs or the financial acumen which they needed to become an outstanding CFO, in their new position many people simply don’t have the skills or the ‘book’ on how to perform in their new role. This inability, which compounds the lack of support or perceived lack of support which the CEO receives from their c-suite colleagues, can lead to further siloing, exacerbating the problem further.

Another challenge new CEOs face is their reluctance to let go of day-to-day business operations and let the team handle them, particularly if they’re now the CEO of their own company. Entrepreneurs can find that stepping back and allowing others to perform the functions they used to do a difficult transition. This may be down to a lack of trust and an assumption that the members of the c-suite do not possess the same passion as them, combined with the difficulties of defining a new role for themselves as CEO. A prime example of this is the founder of Sports Direct, Mike Ashley, whose attempts to micro-manage his extensive business empire eventually led him to face a parliamentary hearing.

The challenges faced by people in this position are to overcome the isolation they might feel – not by internalising their discomfort, but by displaying the qualities for which they were selected for the role in the first place. Communication is vital, both horizontally and vertically, to ensure that information flows between departments and reaches the right people. Insecurities can be overcome and can be dealt with so as to not overwhelm the individual and impact negatively upon performance which may subliminally ripple down throughout the company. Feelings of ineptitude, which may lead to aggression and defensiveness, can also surface and must be managed in a sensitive and sensible manner.

There’s no doubt that CEOs have big decisions to make – the choices they make about a company’s future direction, its strategic decisions, its financial health and its ability to determine its own identity can weigh heavily on a new appointee and will determine if he or she will become a victim of ‘CEO churning’. But CEOs should take heart from their identifiable leadership qualities which led them to be appointed in the first place, have confidence in their own abilities and trust that the board of directors have made the right choice. Everything else will flow from that. 

Fiona McKay