Performing well as a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) is extremely difficult work. At many points throughout their executive careers, CEOs need to don various “hats” in order to properly lead their teams through changing times and struggles.
For example, a CEO may need to be an operations manager one day, and a marketing wiz the next. A CEO needs to switch quickly from operational thinking to strategic-thinking just moments later. It’s this kind of adaptability and consideration that makes good CEOs invaluable to an organization.
Above and beyond what their job description formally includes, a CEO is someone who has mastered the art of learning (and learning quickly). It is often said that the most expensive words in business are “we’ve always done it that way.” And I couldn’t agree more.
So what makes good CEOs effective? What kind of habits have they put into place that can turn these executives into high-performers within their organizations? And, more importantly, why are those habits actually effective?
Today, I not only want to discuss the habits that superstar executives have, but also the principles behind why those habits are effective. It’s not the “how” that makes the habits stick, it’s the “why.”
As an independent consultant and coach, I am witness to many executive habits. The following five habits are the habits I see that make the largest difference in terms of a person’s leadership ability.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to perform the habits to a tee, as long as you recognize the principle behind them and can implement that principle in some form or another as you make your day-to-day leadership decisions.
Without further ado, let’s begin!
Effective CEOs Read
One of the most obvious, but inevitably important, characteristics of effective CEOs are their personal reading regimens. Often, executives will block out time for themselves to read every day, and the average number of books that a CEO reads every year is roughly fifty-two.
That’s about one book every week, or about two chapters every day.
Keeping this kind of schedule requires lots of discipline and natural curiosity. In fact, lots of highly successful executives even place “book lists” on their website so that you can read along with them.
What’s the Principle?
The principle behind reading, and why good executives love it, is constant learning. Gathering information and using that information to make the best decisions possible is the sentence that entirely sums up a CEO’s job description.
In fact, Tony Robbins calls this constant learning and optimization “CANI”, which simply stands for Constant And Never-ending Improvement.
Whether you enjoy reading or not, constant learning is necessary if you wish to become a more informed and knowledgeable decision-maker. Substitutes for reading may not give you all the natural benefits (vocabulary/comprehension) but can help you learn nonetheless.
Consider making it a daily habit to watch a Ted Talk during lunch, or to listen to a podcast on the way to work, it’s little things like this that act as big references for decision-making later.
Consider joining a book club, forming your own executive-team book club, or simply preparing and passing on the knowledge you gain through your reading to others so that you can all share the benefits and insights that books (and other media) have to offer.
Just remember to keep the books relevant to your business needs or practices, Harry Potter may not be optimized for team leadership, I’m afraid.
Effective CEOs Take Personal Time
The next habit that the most effective CEOs have is blocking out time dedicated to thinking and creative solutions. The most successful people in the world often take 30-60 minutes a day to do nothing but think without the hum-drum of busy work to distract them.
This block of time can be used for personal coaching, creative thinking, and relaxing to ease the pressures of a busy day. You may also consider pairing this time with meditation, reflection, and journaling in order to create a reference for your thoughts.
What’s the Principle?
The principle behind taking some personal time to think is a mixture of creativity and control. Executives are naturally busy people with many stresses and priorities placed upon their time.
Many executives use this blocked-out portion of their day as a way to ensure that they have control over their precious time and aren’t becoming a victim of busy work.
The other principle, creativity, is a result of what you do with the time you have. John Maxwell, author of How Successful People Think as well as a litany of other business and executive-targeted books writes that he often blocks out time for solely creative thinking. He keeps a journal of creative thoughts, inspirations, or innovations that he comes up with during these moments in his day.
The benefits of taking personal time to relax, calm down, and to think objectively about a situation will lead to informed and well-reasoned decisions. It also helps a person get into touch with their own thoughts, feelings, and personal philosophies about life, meaning, and happiness.
We see a variety of people use this method to make themselves more effective. From singers such as Beyonce to self-help and wellness coaches like Tony Robbins to billionaire executives such as Richard Branson.
Even just 5 minutes a day may not seem like much at first but can help you discover some key insights about yourself, your company, and your leadership decisions.
Effective CEOs Listen More and Speak Less
As a consultant, I can attest for the benefit of asking directed and intelligent questions, and so can the majority of extremely effective CEOs out there in the world.
The fact of life remains that no person knows everything, and it is the duty of executives to recognize this and become naturally curious about the processes, procedures, and happenings within their organizations in order to make the most informed and optimal decisions.
This is where asking questions comes into play. In fact, coaches and consultants get paid very well because they can logically direct the questions that they ask to get another person to reveal or learn something about themselves that they may not have ever known.
Executive coaches work the same way but often do so in regards to business practices and personal productivity or time management. The point is, asking questions is high-level because it acknowledges your desire for abundant information. And as we know, CEOs love to learn in any way they can.
What’s the Principle?
The principle behind asking questions is, unsurprisingly, a combination of learning and curiosity. Keeping a healthy curiosity will ensure that you find the motivation to ask questions and gather knowledge in the first place, whereas the habit of learning will help you process and utilize that information.
After all, relevant information that goes ignored is wasted. And information that is never asked for is useless in the first place. Therefore, keeping a healthy curiosity and willingness to learn ensures that you optimize the decisions you make.
Often, what makes the difference between a high-level thinker and a low-level thinker is the ability to ask questions that relate to a larger purpose. More specifically, to ask questions that relate to “why” to do something as opposed to “how” to do something.
Would any of the top executives out there nowadays be in the position they are in if they never challenged the “why?” What if Steve Jobs never questioned the status quo at all? He would have been a nobody.
It is an effective CEO’s job to take in information from all angles and to process that information with the larger picture in mind. This is why being a CEO is so difficult – because the smallest and most minuscule bits of information that “slip through the cracks” can still make a big difference.
Effective CEOs Avoid Comfort
“Comfort is the enemy of progress.” – P.T. Barnum
Personally speaking, I couldn’t agree more. Good leaders strive to move away from their comfort zones almost continuously. In fact, most of the self-help and business books I’ve read have recommended one thing: Do something every day that legitimately scares you.
I’m not saying you need to do anything big and dangerous, just something that you otherwise wouldn’t in order to progress towards your goals. We all have a threshold at which our mental state becomes comfortable and unwilling to move. It’s when you pass this threshold that growth occurs.
Think of what occurs when you exercise. To grow physically stronger, you need to first break muscle fibers and become temporarily uncomfortable. Mental growth occurs in the same way. You need to overcome your comfort zone and gather new experiences and “references.”
What’s the Principle?
The principle behind avoiding comfort is constant growth/improvement. In life, you will receive only what you decide to tolerate. Tolerate risk-aversion and you will likely not see great rewards in the same way that risk provides.
In fact, I have a good metaphor with which to make my point. In my book, The Potential Dichotomy: The Philosophy of a Fulfilling Life, I mention a concept called the “baseline of fear.”
Essentially, growth is like climbing a ladder. The most energy is expended once you take a step, but once you are on that step, you can rest there and become comfortable. The point is, once you take that step, fear has much less of a hold on you than it did before.
Taking the step into public speaking terrified me, but after I developed some efficacy in it, I was comfortable and ready to move up the ladder again. So, let me ask for the sake of it. How far up the ladder do you want to go? If you’re anything like me, as far as possible is the answer.
Effective CEOs Show Appreciation
It should be more than standard practice to take some time to show appreciation to your team members and employees. In fact, a lack of appreciation was among the top responses of employees who were unsatisfied with their work environments.
Within my own personal experience, whenever I received so much as a “thank you” I instantly became motivated to keep my image up and please superiors by being a top performer. Appreciation has a way of doing that.
One of the largest appreciation mistakes that I see executives make is showing their appreciation to people only within their direct zone of influence. That is to say, only the people they consistently work with.
Another one of John Maxwell’s top tips is to walk around your organization (warehouse, office, wherever) and strike up random conversations with people you may not even know and thank them for their work.
It often amazes operational employees when an executive is willing to go out of their way to learn about them and thank them personally.
What’s the Principle?
The principle behind appreciation is humility and humbleness. A CEO that recognizes that their organization is made up of hardworking individuals, and that it is directly BECAUSE of those individuals that the CEO is in business, will work to show his/her appreciation.
The CEO should never think less of themselves, they should simply think of themselves less. Executives that show appreciation to all people who work for them recognize the importance of every role to the organization’s success and well-being.
Doing so has multiple benefits on organizational health and happiness.
Benefits of Appreciation:
– Higher employee satisfaction rates,
– Higher productivity and commitment.
– Higher levels of employee/manager/executive trust.
– High levels of autonomy.
These are just to name a few of the benefits that can be had with a little appreciation. If anything, look for ways to create a schedule or block some time out each day to give genuine compliments on work done by your teams, or to meet someone within your organization that you have not met before.
Ultimately, it is not the habits that make CEOs effective as opposed to the reasoning and purpose behind them. It is that reasoning that adds the personal discipline and meaning behind the habits themselves.
Even if you don’t utilize the habits, look for ways to embed the principles into your everyday actions. Small things make a difference, after all, and those habits compound themselves over time to form amazing results.
Let’s go over them one last time.
Habit #1: Effective CEOs Read
Principle: Constant Learning and Improvement
Habit #2: Effective CEOs take Personal Time
Principle: Creativity and Control
Habit #3: Effective CEOs Listen More and Speak Less
Principle: Learning and Curiosity
Habit #4: Effective CEOs Avoid Comfort
Principle: Constant Growth and Improvement
Habit #5: Effective CEOs Show Appreciation
Principle: Humility and Humbleness
Thanks for reading!
Work With Austin
-Austin Denison is a management consultant and coach from Southern California and founder/CEO of Denison Success Systems LLC. He is the author of The Essential Change Management Guidebook: Master The Art of Organizational Change as well as The Potential Dichotomy: The Philosophy of a Fulfilling Life.