The mindsets and practices of excellent CEOs

McKinsey & Company | By Carolyn Dewar, Martin Hirt, and Scott Keller | Oct 2019

navigating the waters - The mindsets and practices of excellent CEOsThe CEO’s job is as difficult as it is important. Here is a guide to how the best CEOs think and act.

A company has only one peerless role: chief executive officer. It’s the most powerful and sought-after title in business, more exciting, rewarding, and influential than any other. What the CEO controls—the company’s biggest moves—accounts for 45 percent of a company’s performance. 1 Despite the luster of the role, serving as a CEO can be all-consuming, lonely, and stressful. Just three in five newly appointed CEOs live up to performance expectations in their first 18 months on the job. 2 The high standards and broad expectations of directors, shareholders, customers, and employees create an environment of relentless scrutiny in which one move can dramatically make or derail an accomplished career.

For all the scrutiny of the CEO’s role, though, little is solidly understood about what CEOs really do to excel. McKinsey’s longtime leader, Marvin Bower, considered the CEO’s job so specialized that he felt executives could prepare for the post only by holding it. Many of the CEOs we’ve worked with have expressed similar views. In their experience, even asking other CEOs how to approach the job doesn’t help, because suggestions vary greatly once they go beyond high-level advice such as “set the strategy,” “shape the culture,” and “get the right team.” Perhaps that’s not surprising—industry contexts differ, as do leadership preferences—but it illustrates that fellow CEOs don’t necessarily make reliable guides.

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Nor has academic and other research on the CEO’s role done much to illuminate how CEOs think and what they do to excel. For example, recent studies that detail how CEOs spend their time don’t show the difference between a good use of time and a bad one. Academic research also demonstrates that traits such as drive, resilience, and risk tolerance make CEOs more successful. This insight is helpful during a search for a new CEO, but it’s hardly one that sitting CEOs can use to improve their performance. Other research has tended to produce such findings as the observation that leaders are effective in some situations and ineffective in others—interesting, but less than instructive.

With this article, we set out to show which mindsets and practices are proven to make CEOs most effective. It is the fruit of a long-running effort to study performance data on thousands of CEOs, revisit our firsthand experience helping CEOs enhance their leadership approaches, and extract a set of empirical, broadly applicable insights on how excellent CEOs think and act. We also offer a self-assessment guide to help CEOs (and CEO watchers, such as boards of directors) determine how closely they adhere to the mindsets and practices that are closely associated with superior CEO performance. Our hope is that all CEOs, new or long-tenured, can use these tools to better apply their scarce time and energy.

A model for CEO excellence

To answer the question, “What are the mindsets and practices of excellent CEOs?,” we started with the six main elements of the CEO’s job—elements touched on in virtually all literature about the role: setting the strategy, aligning the organization, leading the top team, working with the board, being the face of the company to external stakeholders, and managing one’s own time and energy. We then broke those down into 18 specific responsibilities that fall exclusively to the CEO. For example, setting a corporate strategy requires that the CEO make the final call on an overall vision, a set of strategic moves, and the allocation of capital.

excellent CEOs 6 roles 18 practices - The mindsets and practices of excellent CEOs

Focusing on those 18 responsibilities, we conducted extensive research to determine what mindsets and practices distinguish excellent CEOs. We mined our proprietary database on CEO performance, which is the largest of its kind, containing 25 years’ worth of data on 7,800 CEOs from 3,500 public companies across 70 countries and 24 industries. We also drew on what we’ve learned from helping hundreds of CEOs to excel, from preparing for the job and transitioning into it, through navigating difficult decisions and moments of truth, to handing their responsibilities over to a successor.

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The result of these efforts is a model for CEO excellence, which prescribes mindsets and practices that are especially likely to help CEOs succeed at their particular duties (Exhibit 1). What follows is a detailed look at these mindsets and practices. Although our findings are most relevant to CEOs of large public companies, owing to our research base, many will also apply to CEOs of other bodies, including private companies, public-sector organizations, and not-for-profit institutions

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