4 attributes that make a CEO successful

Rob Enderle

ceo attributes

There’s been a lot of drama over at Yahoo. The news that its board had tossed out Marissa Mayer’s plan to sell off the Alibaba stake in order to get the cash needed to fund a turnaround and instead decided to spin out the core business didn’t seem to accomplish the “get the cash” part of the plan at all.

This would be like telling your son to sell the family car so you could buy food and having him come back proudly pronouncing he didn’t want to pay the taxes so he gave it away for free, so you don’t have to worry about the car anymore.   It’s like Jack in that beanstalk story, but without the critical magic beans.   Given Mayer’s is likely going to be asked to step down – making her just the latest in a long line of failed CEOs at Yahoo -- I figured it would be a good time to talk about the attributes of a successful CEO.

I think they come down to four categories that form kind of a hierarchy: Craftiness, charisma, luck and knowledge. Let me explain why I chose these categories and explain the hierarchy.  

1. Craftiness

This is the ability to effectively use everything you have the most effectively.   I place this first because the crafty CEO knows how to game the system. I don’t think you can become a CEO for an existing company without some level of craftiness. You typically just don’t have the time to get there on accomplishments alone.

What I’ve found interesting over the years is often the craftiest person in the company isn’t the CEO, but the person who gets the most benefits with the least risk. They may manipulate the CEO but they know that actually being the CEO comes with a lot of risk and that the huge financial perks the CEO get can, in and of themselves, become a problem.

These folks know how to manipulate, they know how to balance ethics and honesty and just when to take risks. They know both how to get things done and how to avoid doing stupid things. (I should point out that forgetting this last is often how the crafty CEO gets fired). Currently, I think the craftiest CEO we have had this century was Steve Jobs. No degree, fired for cause, yet he became the most successful CEO of the decade.

Jobs took a firm far more broken and sick than Yahoo and turned it into a powerful firm that rolled over Microsoft, RIM, Palm and even Samsung, all of which were initially far more powerful than Apple was. He even tricked Carly Fiorina, an experienced executive, into killing the only real risk to the iPod. The strongest tool for the crafty CEO is often marketing and Louis Gerstner, who is credited with turning around IBM, is a poster child for that.  

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