Five characteristics every CEO needs

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 12, 2017

The potpourri column. Too many topics, not enough space, so just sample the smorgasbord!

So you want to be a CEO. All you need to be is charismatic, armed with an Ivy League degree and larger than life. Wrong. It turns out that definition is in the very small minority and is at best an urban legend. No riding in on a white horse, smartest guy in the room with all the answers.

Elena Botelho, Wharton MBA, leads the CEO genome research project at ghSmart, and her most recent findings (after a 10-year study) suggest that the road to the top is actually more available to just us regular folks — if we practice four distinct characteristics: Make decisions quickly, be relentlessly reliable, manage human relationships well and adapt swiftly to changing circumstances.

Make decisions quickly

Botelho quotes Jeff Bezos from Amazon who writes in a shareholder letter that decision-making is “quality times velocity.” He cites Day Two companies who make good decisions, but make them too slowly. My personal caution to this is from my favorite economist, Daniel Kahneman, whose book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” carefully delineates which decisions can be made rapidly and which need more time. Going really fast over a cliff is not going to get you there.


Interesting characteristic, we all think we are reliable, but the research points to an additional feature of the CEO. Botelho writes, “they have a desperate hunger to be counted on.” In sports, it is the mantra of the fielder who wants the ball hit to him. It is self-perpetuating. I want to be counted on so that I can continue to exhibit reliability so I can be counted on even more.

Manage relationships

This argues for keen self-awareness. One of my mantras is that all CEOs should have at least two years of psychotherapy. The example from Botelho is a symphony orchestra conductor. This person understands the intention of the music, has a vision and an interpretation, and knows the instruments and the musicians. Thus, they can create the music. The conductor is not there to be loved, but he needs to be respected so that others will follow. That’s why he has the baton.

Fast learner. Adaptability.

My favorite example is from my sailboat racing. Tack on the wind shifts. It is important to look up the course, see the wind and anticipate the shift. Innovation is nice, but rapid adaptability proves to be more important.

And I am adding a fifth characteristic.

Own your mistakes

The best leaders mine their mistakes. It is often said by the venture capitalists that they want to invest with a founder who has recently had a failure — if they were introspective enough to acknowledge the mistakes and learn from them. So there you have it. No Stanford degree required.


Recently, I gave a TEDx talk at UCSD. It was a delight, and the program was flawlessly executed. Kudos to Daniel Wen, Richard Lin and Gigi Yip, and the 18 volunteers. At the lunch break, I was sitting with six students and the question of what you want in a board director came up. I mentioned some key characteristics and added that “it would be important for the person to have a deep and relevant Rolodex.”

Whereupon, a millennial said to me, “What is a Rolodex?” Boom shaka laka — I now have a deep appreciation of how it feels to be a prehistoric dinosaur. I am sending my retired double Rolodex to the Smithsonian.


And finally I recently attended Innovation Night at the La Jolla Playhouse, and I was dazzled by Saura Naderi who was modeling a robotic dress, complete with moving tentacles, which can be programmed from a wireless keyboard. Naderi, along with Don Hutson, both work at Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab, and they have designed a beautiful multi-colored flowing dress. But if you get fresh with her, the 3-D printed tentacles come up from the dress, they rotate and they are fearsome and not to be messed with. As a final note, Naderi is a past winner of an Athena Pinnacle Award. I always like to give a shout out to smart women science leaders.

There you have it. Our entrepreneurial STEM community is alive and well, with budding CEOs, big ideas and robots.

Rule No. 525:  Reach out. It’s yours for the taking.


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