Salespeople generally make great CEOs. The CEO has to be the top cheerleader and encourager for the company. They’re not just the face of the company. They are the voice of the company as well. They’re the top brand ambassador. They’re constantly enrolling and re-enrolling people in the direction that they’re going and helping to shape the future direction of the company. Wildly inquisitive, they’re constantly asking questions to their people, to their customers, to their prospects in order to listen and learn. They realize you can never know enough about your marketplace and what it wants.
Good CEOs leave the building to go and see for themselves. They believe in travel and boots on the ground. They’ll take a few days a month to go and work with field sales, listening to customers’ stories and asking how they can do better. You wouldn’t believe the Goodwill this builds with current customers and prospects. This augments the strength of the customer relationship. If the CEO is there, it shows the company really cares.
Jeff Immelt believes in leaving the building and going to see for yourself, to get more opportunities for learning.
“I’ve always had a healthy disrespect for headquarters, which I still have today. When you spend time on the road, you get more opportunities for soaking, for learning.”
— Jeff Immelt, former GE CEO
Great CEOs don’t stop pitching. There is always another pitch. Whether it be an idea, a new product offering, or a movement, there is always something to sell to others. CEOs understand the vitality of selling and expressing ideas in an enthusiastic way. When they get to the top, they usually say the thing they miss the most is being out there in front of customers and selling, helping, and pitching.
Great CEOs provide leadership structure in shaping the organizational culture. When he arrived at Ford Motor Corp. from Boeing, Alan Mulally discovered what a true disaster it was. Top leadership was a mess, with infighting, bickering, and backstabbing. Departments were siloed 100% and only talked with one another to see how they could pull one over on the other guy. Ford’s was a toxic culture. Enter Alan Mulally, bringing his structure, discipline, engineering wizardry, and good nature to the scene. Alan institutes his Business Plan Review structure to the executive staff. A few dislike the new structure and thusly opt-out. Those who remain conform to Alan’s new rules of helping one another with problems, of honesty, and of discipline in execution to resurrect Ford. Slowly, steadily, Ford rises from the ashes of the industrial automotive manufacturing morass to become a star once again. By incrementing small, daily disciplines in its leadership and by changing its attitude and language, Alan Mulally changed a toxic culture into a productive and successful one. This is what the pinnacle of leadership looks like.
Don’t let it be “lonely at the top.”
Great CEOs believe good ideas can come from anywhere, not just the top. Open-mindedness is a virtue for all of us, including those at the top. One of the worst attitudes any CEO can have is, “it is lonely at the top.” Feelings of isolation, feelings of “No one understands me” are particularly pernicious and may trickle down the entire organization. It is only lonely at the top if you choose it, pushing yourself away from others and their ideas and contributions, walling yourself away in the corner office with a closed door. “Lonely at the top” is a choice. Great CEOs choose its opposite, as they constantly enlist and enroll others in the direction that they’re going and discussing the collective, compelling future for the organization.
What not to do is as important as what to do.
Great CEOs have vision. Few possess as keen a vision as Steve Jobs did for Apple. When he returned to his company after a 10 year exodus, he found a lumbering giant on the cusp of capitulation. Apple was wildly unfocused, participating in all kinds of products it should not have been, totaling over 200 skus. Jobs returns and sees this mess, and immediately takes action, slashing products from Apple’s lines, greatly simplifying its offering. They whittle it way down. Jobs institutes a culture of innovation, creativity, and discipline — focusing on what not to do as well as what to do. Apple emerges from the tech ashes and navigates it to becoming one of the most successful companies in business and industrial history.