The Four Characteristics of Exceptional Executives


A recent study shows the most successful companies had leaders with these four traits in common.

What executive leadership skills really matter in terms of a company’s growth and success? Are there distinguishing characteristics among executives whose organizations succeed versus those who fail?

One recent decade-long study of executive transitions, published in the Harvard Business Review, provides a closer look at why failure rates for companies remain high in spite of strong leadership. The authors’ goal was to determine if there are certain common traits among leaders which positively impact organizational performance.

After thousands of interviews, an in-depth statistical analysis, and a study of countless historical performance reviews, the authors identified four recurring traits of successful executives. Possession of two or three of the traits correlated to some success, while mastery of all four traits led to the greatest success for the leaders and their companies.

The Four Characteristics of Exceptional Executives

So, what made these executives achieve great success? Here is a breakdown of what matters most:

1.      They understand all aspects of their business.

Exceptional executives possess in-depth knowledge of all the intricacies of their businesses and how each piece meshes together. Upon arrival into the C-suite, they push aside old cognitive biases in favor of leading with openness and a drive to learn more. These executives broaden their exposure to all parts of their organization and take on a variety of cross-company assignments to increase their understanding of the business. This helps them identify weaknesses in the organization’s seams, improve daily operations, limit fragmentation, and keep the company competitive.

2.    They are solid decision-makers.

Successful executives know how to weigh the available information, gather additional knowledge when necessary, and use gut instinct to make good, educated decisions. Good decision-makers are hard to come by: A McKinsey survey of 2,207 executives showed that only 28% thought their company made generally good strategic decisions, and a whopping 60% thought that bad decisions occurred as often as good ones. Exceptional executives also have the ability to discuss their viewpoints, engage others to share their thoughts and ideas, analyze data for further insight, weigh the alternatives, own their decision, and communicate the decision clearly.

3.    They have a thorough knowledge of their industry.

The most successful executives know every aspect of their company’s industry. The have a solid grasp of the ever-changing landscape of their business, including who their competitors are and why. They know what makes their business stand out above the crowd, how to remain competitive, and how their business answers customers’ needs. Top executives possess a contextual intelligence about their industry and their place in it.

4.    They form meaningful relationships.

Top executives demonstrate concern beyond the company’s results by showing genuine care for their colleagues, from shareholders and superiors to direct reports and customers. They are able to communicate in compelling ways and form relationships beyond the superficial. Exceptional executives instinctually know how to form mutually beneficial, trusting relationships. One study that supports this theory found that poor relationships occur at a very high percentage within executive failures.

The good news is all of these traits, once identified, are easy to learn and address. Look at which of these four traits might be hindering your success the most and begin there. By taking the steps to educate yourself, change your habits, and perhaps refine your approach, you could increase your positive impact on your organization’s success.

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