Business leaders that reach CEO status likely had no shortage of advice along the way. From first steps in business to the trip up the ladder of success, there’s usually an abundance of inspiration.
When it comes from highly successful CEOs, however, advice can take on greater meaning. We rounded up some business tips from several experts, and then matched them with insight from an all-star roundup of CEOs on Fortune.com. Here are seven tips from those CEOs, along with advice they received over the years.
1. Passionate leadership
What makes a passionate leader? Desire, motivation and enthusiasm are just a few key elements. As Damian Bazadona writes for Inc.com, these kinds of leaders “believe wholeheartedly in their offering, regardless of challenges that arise.”
“While at times their passion can be viewed as delusional, they recognize the basic point: A team needs the vision and confidence of a great leader,” he explains. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in meetings and watched the room shift from a state of depression to a mood of optimism in less than 15 minutes, thanks to a positive leader.”
A CEO’s take (Mary Barra of General Motors): “Do something you are passionate about, do something you love. If you are doing something you are passionate about, you are just naturally going to succeed, and a lot of other things will happen that you don’t need to worry about. There are so many opportunities and choices that women can make or anyone can make about what they do. Do something you are passionate about. Life is too short.”
Successful CEOs typically don’t reach their lofty positions by playing it safe. Challenges will come from all directions, and risks will be part of that. Careful, well-thought-out risk-taking may lead to new revenue opportunities. Drew Hendricks examines this for Inc.com, calling it “a necessary part of any business model.”
“Without it, little is accomplished and customers quickly become bored with your product, service or program,” Hendricks says. “Not only does risk open up the door to new possibilities, but it also shows your audience the firm genuinely cares about the industry and users of its product.
A CEO’s take (Andres Gluski of The AES Corporation): “Great managers turn hard times into opportunities for change. Likewise, generals are proven only in the heat of battle, not on the parade grounds. So, be mentally prepared for challenging times.”
3. The power of listening
In the midst of an action-packed, meeting-filled day, it may be hard to stop for a moment and consider how those interactions are going. CEOs that spend most of the day directing traffic and giving instructions in one-sided conversations may find that they don’t truly listen to their employees. As Skiddy von Stade puts it for Fast Company, “You’re not the only one with great ideas.”
“The great idea your company needs might not hit you in a bolt of lightning one day, but if you listen closely to other people, you just might find they hold the key to your company’s future,” von Stade says. “Being a great leader isn’t just about directing others, it’s also about listening to what they have to say. It’s about recognizing the strategic value of others, even if they’re not the CEO of a company or your organization’s most valuable client.”
A CEO’s take (Robert B. Pollock of Assurant): “When I was growing up, I noticed that my mom spent a lot of time on the phone in silence. She’d be on the phone for an hour but would only talk for a few minutes. I asked her why she didn’t talk more, and she said, ‘You learn the most when your mouth is closed and your ears are open.’ She was right.”
Owning up to mistakes, misfires and missteps goes with the territory as CEO. In a story for Inc.com, Curt Richardson notes that though politicians may avoid it, “businesses can and must admit when they have fallen through on promises.”
“Not all decisions made will be the right ones, but open and honest communication about those situations maintains integrity and accountability,” he writes. “Integrity and accountability are daily decisions, not one-offs reserved for top level decisions by the CEO. Every employee must adhere to these values in all the tasks and operations they do. If a business doesn’t have integrity in the small things, no one will believe it has integrity in the big things.”
A CEO’s take (Scott McGregor of Broadcom): “It’s called ‘The front page of the newspaper test,’ and it goes something like, ‘Don’t do, say, or write anything you wouldn’t want published on …’ … It’s useful advice that has helped guide some of my key decisions over the years — not because it kept me from doing potentially dumb or embarrassing things, but rather because it’s a simple reminder that the more complex our business decisions get, the greater the need to be accountable and transparent to our employees, our customers, our partners, and to the communities around the world where we work and live.”
5. Value other contributions
Good CEOs know that they didn’t get to where they are on their own. So it’s wise to acknowledge the roles played by the peers and bosses that helped them along the way, along with the current roster of talent that makes their businesses go. Jeff Haden examines this in a story for Inc.com.
“Every employee — even a relatively poor performer — does something well. Every employee deserves praise and appreciation. It’s easy to recognize some of your best employees, because they’re consistently doing awesome things. … You might have to work hard to find reasons to recognize an employee who simply meets standards, but that’s OK: A few words of recognition — especially public recognition — may be the nudge an average performer needs to start becoming a great performer.”
A CEO’s take (Mike Petters of Huntington Ingalls Industries): “I am a firm believer that leadership is a craft. I run an engineering and manufacturing company that builds complex military ships and provides engineer services for sophisticated products. But it’s the nearly 40,000 people who make us who we are, and they deserve the best leaders possible. Leadership should never be taken for granted. Just like welding, or engineering, or accounting, leadership is a skill that requires investment and practice.”
Ambition can play a significant role in a CEO’s business approach. And the craziest ideas or daydreams about where the business might go can be a major benefit. In a story for Entrepreneur.com, Marty Fukuda says, “Mediocre goals never bring out greatness.”
“No goal is too large or challenging if you have the resolve to put in the work,” he explains. “Your next move or ambition can seem crazy to everyone else — but it doesn’t matter. Never let where you are at today limit you. Believe in yourself, and you can make anything happen.”
A CEO’s take (Michael F. Mahoney of Boston Scientific): “The best advice I ever got was from my father. He is a big believer in being true to yourself and others, but also in dreaming big. As a leader, I try to encourage my team to be bold and to embrace calculated risks. At the same time, we should be authentic and grounded in the realities of business today.”
7. Value your reputation
Companies that have earned a strong reputation have a clear advantage. Everything about the business can benefit from that positive reflection, which can then lead to greater successes. A Harvard Business Review report showed that “Firms with strong positive reputations attract better people.”
“They are perceived as providing more value, which often allows them to charge a premium. Their customers are more loyal and buy broader ranges of products and services. Because the market believes that such companies will deliver sustained earnings and future growth, they have higher price-earnings multiples and market values and lower costs of capital.”
A CEO’s take (Walt Bettinger of Charles Schwab): “The best advice I’ve ever received came in a simple reminder from my late father: ‘Most things in the world can be bought or sold, but not a reputation.’ With these few words of great wisdom, my father instilled in me a framework for behavior, interactions with others, and decision making that shapes my actions every day.”
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