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What Makes a Leader Exceptional? Strategic Clarity and People Skills

CEOs Standing Out

A recent article in McKinsey Quarterly got us thinking again about the qualities of a transformational leader. We work with people every day to help them move from “good” to “great” leadership. This work is grounded in the day-to-day habit changes that move a leader from surviving to excelling.

The article is titled What makes a CEO exceptionalMcKinsey, as usual, take a high-level strategic view, and does not dwell on the specific, people-focused engagement behaviors that define great leadership and drive its success. But we still see our own leadership and team-building work woven throughout this article. Let’s take their three exceptional behaviors one at a time to see where people and their talents play a foundational role in a CEO’s exceptional results.

Strategic Review/Overview/Assessment

As leader at any level, you must know the business inside and out. And “outside” means from a third-party’s perspective, rather than just the Three C’s, or the quadrants of a SWOT analysis. How can you gain that critical perspective? How can your team gain and use that knowledge? Leaders who answer those questions with plans, and act on the plans, seem to succeed at higher levels.

In our own work, we emphasize the pursuit of truth as a core leadership principle. This means challenging assumptions, rewarding “speaking truth to power,” creating a work environment that does seek that outsider’s perspective and avoiding group think. Strategic assessment must have that guiding principle to be effective, as well.

Strategic Actions

This was interesting and very encouraging; this chart from the article supports our contention that an organizational structure does not automatically need an overhaul. It could have been sub-optimized not by its design, but by the disengaged people working fitfully within it. Success may come quickly if the people are reengaged and properly fulfilling the potential of the existing structure.

McKinsey chart exceptional CEO priorities

Organizational Balance

Here again, we see measured steps toward goal achievement. “All deliberate speed” would be a catchphrase a leader could use usefully. Intelligent, sustainable progress sets the standard for long-term exceptional success.

“Our sample of exceptional CEOs…was less likely than the average CEO to undertake organizational redesign or management-team reshuffles in the first two years in office.”

The folks at McKinsey ascribe this to the clarity gained from the strategic review, and careful prioritizing of initiatives by the stellar CEO.

We suspect a different reason: The exceptional CEOs took the time to figure out whether the organization needed redesign or the people needed reengaging within a pretty good design. We suspect they found talented people who had been sub-optimized by the prior regime and resisted blowing up the org chart before the pool of talented employees were fully assessed and debriefed.

As leaders, then, you can see where your strategic advantage may lie: Re-engage and re-energize your talented people around your mission (clearly defined now through strategic assessment.)

Strategic clarity means little if you cannot get your organization to follow you. That is where the culture-building behaviors we teach, and help make habitual, forge the commitment CEOs need from their employees to achieve their strategic vision. And by employees, we mean every single one of them. The best strategic transformations take the time to build employee engagement and alignment from the ground up, and from middle management out. Top-down only will not get it done.

Have you been involved in a successful organizational transformation led by a new CEO? From your perspective, how did he or she get it done? What program was put in place to engage and energize people and teams around the new mission?

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