Earlier in my career I was fortunate to work for a CEO who I admired and respected. When he first interviewed me, he said he was looking for two qualities in the people he hired. These were integrity and a sense of urgency. Since that time, I worked for many companies with employees who demonstrated one but not the other, and I discovered how important these both were to me.
Legendary investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett says he looks for three things when hiring people: 1) integrity, 2) intelligence, and 3) a high energy level. But, he says, if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.
In a new book by New York Times columnist Adam Bryant titled “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons From CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed,” Bryant interviewed more than 70 CEOs and other leaders to uncover what he calls five essentials for success, qualities that most leaders share and look for in people they hire.
These five qualities are 1) passionate curiosity, 2) battled-hardened confidence, 3) team smarts, 4) a simple mind-set, and 5) fearlessness.
What Bryant discovered is that these traits are not something we’re born with, but they can be developed through the right attitude, habit and discipline. He contends that these qualities will make you stand out and make you a better manager or leader; they will also help you move your career forward like nothing else.
All CEOs are expected to have the right answers and be decisive in how they execute their strategy. However, asking the right questions may be more important than anything else. This curiosity may not show up in the usual public forums for the boss, but behind the scenes, this can be a natural way of being. It is about showing a genuine interest in the people around you as well as questioning the way and the why things are done. CEOs look for this quality when considering leadership positions.
Failure is too often hidden in job interviews. Top CEOs are not looking for those who avoided failure throughout their careers, but those who have overcome adversity and learned from it. It demonstrates that you are capable of owning a problem rather than passing the buck. Many of the stories in Bryant’s book bring to life the concept of a “locus of control,” which refers to people’s outlook and belief about what leads to success and failure in their life. These are the folks who take on any assignment without question and get it done. They can be relied upon when the going gets tough.
Team smarts refers to the ability to recognize the players a team needs and how to bring them together toward a common goal. “I need people who are going to be able to build a team, manage a team, recruit well and work well with their peers,” says Susan Lyne, chairman of the Gilt Groupe. “The people who truly succeed in business are the ones who actually have figured out how to mobilize people who are not their direct reports.”
A Simple Mind-Set
Senior executives want people who can present concisely, get to the point, and make things simple. Yet few people can deliver the simplicity that CEOs are looking for. All too often, unfocused thinking leads to lengthy and exhausting details. Demonstrating how much you know about a particular topic is not nearly as important to an executive as conveying the critical information and a clear strategy for moving forward. In the Internet age, with the ability to easily gather information, there is now a premium on the ability to synthesize, connect the dots in new ways, and ask smart questions that lead to answers and opportunities.
CEOs are looking for people to do things, but not only what they’re told to do. Calculated and informed risk-taking is also important. “One of the things that I characterize as fearlessness is seeing an opportunity, even though things are not broken,” said Ursula M. Burns, C.E.O. of Xerox. It is risky to shake up the status quo, of course. But if you operate with the best interests of the organization in mind, you can open up new opportunities for yourself and your company. This is what separates those who follow directions and do things right from those who lead and do the right things.
These five qualities help determine who may be chosen for more responsibility and promotions, which then requires more learning through trial and error. And that continual learning, I believe, is another essential element of leadership.
Integrity and a sense of urgency are very important qualities for employees throughout most organizations. But to become a successful leader, the five essential qualities above can often be the difference between who the CEO sees as a leader versus another good manager.