10 Habits of Highly Successful CEOs

In our work with high performing CEOs of fast-growth companies, one thing is abundantly clear: Building a highly-successful company is the result of some fairly predictable executive habits. Consistent and regular habits in the C-Suite are essential in “modeling” the kind of company and culture that you want to build.

According to Noam Wasserman, the author of “The Founder’s Dilemma,” the corollary is also true: 65% of startups fail due to ineffective management and leadership practices, not product or marketing problems.

That’s right, Founder…it really is all about the habits and effectiveness of you and your team. The good news is we’ve boiled these essential C-Suite habits down to ten. Print this out and put it on your wall. It’s that important.

1. Start your day with a regular and consistent set of centering behaviors that include:

  • Meditation and Exercise — Having a consistent routine for moving your body and focusing your mind give you a great foundation for effectiveness.

  • Establish Priorities for the Day/Week — If you don’t have priorities, no one else will either. Know what is most important for you to move your biggest indicators of success, whether those be in sales, fundraising, or product.

  • Make Sure your Calendar Matches Your Priorities — If you build your calendar by responding to invites and email rather than building your work-plan around your priorities you will never make progress.

2. Establish One Block of Time When You Deal with “the Details.” It is Important to have a system in place to keep track of commitments, action items to follow-up on and critical issues to resolve. The key is to not let all these details clutter your day. By designating a consistent time to deal with these details, you free yourself with time to focus on the more strategic, important items rather than spending the entire day on just the urgent and unimportant. It is essential to have a good EA or Chief of Staff who can keep track and remind you of all the issues, and follow-up on items that tend to fall through the cracks.

3. Be self-aware and know what time of day you are at your best/worst.Great CEOs know their body rhythms and organize difficult meetings and conversations to occur when they are at their best. They also take what is happening inside and bring it outside. Often the things that are keeping them up at night are the very things that need to be talked about and discussed with key employees and investors. They are aware of how their moods impact the organization. Everyone watches the CEO and matches their mood and cadence. Effective CEOs have learned to work through their frustrations and manage their emotions so as not to negatively impact the organization.

4. Create time and space for real discussion and dialogue about important issues. Effective CEOs/Founders know when to use Slack, text, or email, and when to discuss issues face-to-face in order to get real buy-in and commitment to important issues. They limit their involvement in too many meetings. They are diligent about the cadence and discipline of meetings — tactical daily stand-ups, weekly all-hands meetings, and quarterly strategic off-sites. They end each meeting or conversation with a recap on agreements, next steps, and who does what.

5. Be intentional about which things to stay involved in and which things to let go of. Effective CEOs have mastered the art of “zooming in and zooming out.” They demonstrate an ability to see the near and the far at the same time. One trap of many CEOs is to want things perfect and to micromanage everything. This is not the way to build a loyal group of followers that will stay with you. One tip is to be clear on the things you will let go of — -as long as you are clear on the WHAT, you can let your people focus on HOW things will get done.

6. Communicate what is important NOW. There are often so many priorities that it is difficult for people to determine what the major focus should be. In his book, The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni talks about how organizations that have long lists of competing priorities have little chance of success. He recommends that leaders develop the habit of choosing “The One Thing” they will focus on within a time period in order to promote alignment and clarity of focus.

7. Tell inspiring stories to remind people WHY what we are doing is so important. Great CEOs tell riveting stories. In our coaching, we help CEOs create stories that inspire and build a sense of energy and passion around where the organization is going. Highly successful CEOs provide consistent weekly reminders of what we are doing (See “The One Thing,” above!), and why it is so important — you can never do too much of this.

8. Welcome feedback and learn from it. Successful CEOs know how to take a lot of shit and learn from it. They ask for more, mull it over, take what lessons they find valuable, and then move on. They never take it personally. CEOs who can’t take feedback most likely don’t believe they’ve hired the smartest people in the industry to work for them. See below.

9. Be obsessed with hiring developing and retaining “A” players. Great CEOs hire people who are smarter than they are. People they can trust with big decisions. People who will show them opportunities they couldn’t come up with themselves. People who are obsessed with figuring out better and smarter ways to solve problems. Less effective CEOs hire people who are follow directions, don’t question their superiors, and ultimately don’t help the company innovate.

10. Motivate and appreciate people by “catching them doing things right.” For some reason, many CEOs we work with think giving too much praise is a sign of weakness. Or it will take the heat off employees who need to keep performing at a high level. Nothing could be further from the truth. According to a study recently cited in Harvard Business Review, 40% of employed Americans say they’d put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often. Recognition can take many forms, but often a personal note, a mention at an all-hands meeting, or even just swinging by the employee’s desk to say “Attagirl!” is more than enough.

Obviously, there are dozens of habits that make CEOs effective, but these are the top 10 that we’ve come across in our combined decades of coaching high-performing executives. If you think you need help developing any of these habits yourself, please don’t be afraid to reach out directly at edward@gainvelocity.com or john@gainvelocity.com.

Edward Sullivan