I own a software firm and am the acting CEO. I began my career in entry-level roles, and worked my way up to senior-level roles. One thing that I’ve always had, regardless of my position, is an owner mentality. Whether I’ve owned the company or not, I’ve always thought like an owner or CEO.
What are CEO qualities?
You might be asking yourself, “What are CEO qualities?” I’ll share a few of the key ones below. Before I get to that, though, I should mention that you don’t need to be a CEO to have CEO qualities. BambooHR, an HRIS software company, has a value that I really appreciate: lead from where you are. The owners of the company want each person to be a leader and show initiative, no matter their job title. People who adhere to this philosophy typically get recognized for it at some point in their careers. If “That’s Not My Job!” is part of your thinking, let me invite you to change your ways. To think like a CEO, consider the following:
Understand organizational finances
I once worked for a man who had built a business empire. He told me that one of his biggest fears for his business was when the company got big enough, and had enough profit, that his managers wouldn’t think twice about unnecessary spending (like business lunches). In the early days of his business, he was very aware of what it took to earn money and make a profit, and he was concerned that his managers would lose an appreciation for that. I’m not saying you have to be stingy, but you should understand things like the revenue, expenses and margins—basically, all financial aspects of your organization—and know what the executives are sensitive to. You’ve heard the phrase “follow the money.” I’d advise you to “understand the money.”
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Guard company culture
Company culture has gotten a lot of press over the years. People repeat the phrase “culture eats strategy for lunch” in organizations of all sizes. A CEO is concerned about the culture that is created and nurtured because that culture is what makes work meaningful and fun. A reputable culture is what attracts the right talent to an organization. If a company has a bad culture, it can drive the right talent away. Every employee has a role in strengthening or weakening the right culture. If you can do this right, you are on your way to mastering one of the top CEO qualities.
Sales is key
No matter what you think about sales, if you are thinking like a CEO you understand that sales is the vehicle that allows your organization to do other things. Whether you want to make better products, deliver a better customer experience or be more philanthropic, you need to be able to finance it. Even if you have received outside funding, healthy and sustainable financing eventually means a strong sales organization. Respect the role that sales has in your organization and how every team interfaces with and complements what the sales team does.
All departments that aren’t sales
When I was at Idaho State University, I discovered the Computer Information Systems major, which was the only technical major in the business department. I became enamored with the major, and the career potentials, and at one point remember walking through the liberal arts building wondering why anyone would choose a liberal arts major. The joke at the time was that if you were a history major, the phrase “Would you like fries with that?” was in your postschool future. I had a maturing point in my career, however, when I realized that every skill set can add to the whole organization. While some get paid more than others, all add value to a holistic offering and experience, and all deserve respect.
BambooHR, an HRIS software company, has a value that I really appreciate: lead from where you are. The owners of the company want each person to be a leader and show initiative, no matter their job title. People who adhere to this philosophy typically get recognized for it at some point in their careers.
Risk is required
In order to grow, win, compete and be ready for opportunities, you need to take risks. A lot of people are averse to risk, and frankly so are many CEOs. But a good CEO knows that there are different kinds of risk. Measured risk is when you have a better understanding of the variables involved, and know what different outcomes could result. How much could you lose? How much could you gain? In order to be ready for opportunities to come, even with unknowns, you need to be okay with risk.
A CEO needs to be okay with hard conversations because he or she will have them continually. A hard conversation for a CEO might include termination of an employee or initiative, changing an agreement with a partner, changing strategy (which could lead to impacting a number of jobs and families) or removing company benefits. Avoiding hard conversations is a rookie move that will doom CEOs. You have to learn to embrace them, and you must master the art of having hard conversations. You might not ever become completely comfortable with these conversations, but you can learn skills that will make them easier. The most important thing is, whether they are easy or not, CEOs accept that hard conversations are a part of the job and don’t hide from them. This is one of the top CEO qualities you should aim to possess.
Once I was general manager, which at my organization was similar to CEO, and I had monthly board meetings. This was my first time reporting to a board, and it turned out to be a grueling, intense obligation. The company had struggled for years, even before I was involved; and when I started my tenure at the helm, the board had a lot of hard questions. It was not easy, but I quickly learned the buck stopped with me. I think an important part of career success is to understand what you are accountable for, and learn how you can excel in your role and duties. Take ownership of and pride in your role!
There are other CEO qualities, for sure. The ones I profiled are the ones that I personally feel are the most important. I encourage you to complete a leadership assessment and figure out what you do really well as a CEO-thinker, and what you could work on. Who knows, maybe you are a CEO in training right now, and one day you’ll be running the show!