The CEO Paradox

There are many attributes that managers and leaders share, but working out how to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to CEO potential is not as straightforward as one might think.

I was reminded of this recently whilst distilling a chairman’s brief on what he wanted to see in the organisations next CEO. As I focused on the skills and attributes sought, it struck me that some of the most important traits could easily be perceived to be conflicting.

  • Tough but sensitive
  • Decisive but inclusive
  • Risk taker but considered

The CEO – All Things to All People

It would take more than the few lines I have here to look at the nuances that explain how all of this can be found in one personality. But this is the challenge a board will often have when selecting the right recruitment partner for Board and Executive leadership appointments.

From the outset it is important to remember that the CEO’s brief is multi layered, playing to a wide range of stakeholders who will all look for something different in the leader. The shareholder expects efficiency and profitability that might come with streamlining and headcount reduction, whilst the employee seeks security and personal development. The customer expects quality service whilst the organisation pushes for efficiency and productivity.

And they are all right!

It should come as no surprise then that it takes a multi-talented individual to retain the support of varied stakeholder interests.

Creating the CEO Profile

So how can you ensure that you select a leader with the ability to deliver against often complex and conflicting attributes?  The answer – develop a clear and structured approach to assessment.

First and foremost, the key capabilities and competencies sought should be identified and defined.

This is rarely a simple exercise and often results in a review of the organisations strategic goals and objectives – the desired outcomes that will shape the talent you need to recruit. Knowing which skills and abilities matter most is essential for success.

The most important things are ensuring relevance and focus. Competencies should be clearly defined and there should be no inter-dependency. There are a few ways to do this, including:

Using pre-set lists of common competencies

  • There are many available online, but must be customised to ensure specificity to the organisation and role challenges

Using outside consultants to develop a bespoke framework

  • The output from this is likely to deliver organisational competencies (how things get done around here) and role specific competencies (the specific skills and capabilities relevant to the CEO remit)

The approach to assessment needs to be similarly defined, with a clear understanding of what you are measuring and assessing at each stage in the process, and how you are assessing it. There is no point in taking a comparative approach and asking whether someone is more likely to be “tough or sensitive” if you really need them to be both!

Invest in Success

Too often recruitment is formulaic, designed principally on process.

If you are seeking to make a CEO appointment, or for that matter any Executive appointment, the cost of getting it wrong merits the time and effort to construct a bespoke and focused approach to recruitment.

A good framework will be evidence based, taking a broad look at all sources of available information to ensure the best objective profile of candidates can be formed.  But it will also consider context; relevance of sector, size and scale of previous roles, and the prevailing economic landscape that might surround previous achievements, for example.

An element of box ticking is a necessity if your approach is to allow for objective comparison of the merits of differing candidates too. A well-structured set of attributes sought and competencies to be assessed will ensure that in the final analysis clear thinking is promoted, and there is a strong reference framework that will help build confidence in the final decisions you take.

When the recruitment process is focused and well-managed, you will avoid the pitfall often associated with the ‘either or’ question and in the end select the right candidate; one who can be tough and sensitive, dynamic and calm, strategic and operational, and ultimately achieve your business goals.


Andy Rogerson is a Founding Director of the Livingston James Group.  A fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, he is a veteran of the UK recruitment industry and has facilitated CEO and Board appointments across a range of sectors and industries. To discuss you approach to executive assessment please drop him a note directly: [email protected]






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