Thoughts on Leadership: Unveiling the Blueprint for CEO Success

As I prepare for the excitement ahead at the upcoming Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Sales Convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, I can’t help but anticipate all that this year’s convention has in store. It’s a time for networking, learning, recharging, and connecting in the vibrant city of New Orleans.

Delving into the intricacies of 10 X companies, 10 X athletes, and 10 X CEOs over the years, I’ve unearthed a truth that dispels common misconceptions in corporate leadership. While the traditional image of a CEO may evoke visions of brilliance and innate talent, my exploration reveals a roadmap to success rooted in practical wisdom and learned skills. Through extensive research and insightful anecdotes, I’ve distilled seven essential lessons from the journeys of exceptional CEOs, offering guidance for aspiring leaders.

  1. CEOs aren’t born, they’re made: Contrary to popular belief, the path to CEO status isn’t reserved for the privileged few or the exceptionally gifted. Rather, it’s a journey of honing leadership skills over time. The tales of CEOs like Don Slager, who rose from a garbageman to helm Republic Services, a Fortune 500 company, debunk the myth of innate genius, highlighting the significance of practical experience and insight gained from diverse roles within an organization.
  2. Make fewer and faster decisions: In the fast-paced world of corporate leadership, the ability to make swift, decisive choices reigns supreme. Studies reveal that decisiveness is a hallmark of top-performing CEOs, exemplified by individuals like Steve Gorman, who orchestrated a remarkable turnaround for Greyhound Lines through bold and decisive action. Steve took over the bus company Greyhound Lines in 2003 when it was $140 million in debt. After being advised to either divide up the regions and sell off the company’s business in them, or to increase fare prices, Gorman had to decide quickly. Instead of consulting sales figures, he looked at a map of America. Gorman compared this map with the Greyhound route map and made the bold decision to stop all of the routes that serviced low-density populations. Thanks to this decisiveness, after four years, Greyhound Lines was making an annual profit of $30 million.
  3. Understand your stakeholders: Effective CEOs possess a keen understanding of stakeholders, navigating their motivations and perspectives with empathy and insight. By cultivating a culture of genuine curiosity and attentive listening, leaders like Neil Fiske, mainly known as the man who rescued the surf company Billabong, have transformed companies by aligning their strategies with customer needs and aspirations.
  4. Reliability and consistency matter: In the eyes of board members and peers, reliability is a cornerstone trait of effective leadership. CEOs who demonstrate discipline, thoroughness, and a consistent demeanor are favored over erratic counterparts. By honoring commitments and maintaining a steady course, leaders build trust and credibility within their organizations.
  5. Build repeatable systems: To navigate the complexities of leadership, CEOs must establish robust, repeatable systems that foster efficiency and minimize errors. Drawing parallels to the meticulous preparation of conductors and Navy SEALs, successful leaders like Jeff Schwartz, former CEO of Timberland, exemplify the power of systematic planning and preparation.
  6. Adapt to future trends: The demise of once-thriving giants like Kodak and Blockbuster underscores the importance of embracing change and adapting to evolving trends. CEOs who possess a forward-looking mindset, such as Jean Hoffman of the pharmaceutical company Putney, excel by anticipating shifts in their industries and capitalizing on emerging opportunities.
  7. Get noticed for the right reasons: Climbing the corporate ladder requires more than just talent—it demands strategic positioning and proactive engagement. By becoming indispensable in niche areas, fostering relationships with key stakeholders, and seizing opportunities for visibility, aspiring CEOs like Damien McDonald carve out their paths to leadership. Damien McDonald declined a managerial position at Johnson and Johnson, a $50 billion firm, and chose to lead the $250 million spine division of Zimmer, a medical-device company. Under McDonald’s leadership, Zimmer saw growth of 12 percent, while the most he could have achieved at Johnson and Johnson would’ve probably been between one and two percent.

So, what’s the message? The journey to CEO excellence is not predetermined by pedigree or innate abilities. Rather, it’s a testament to the power of perseverance, adaptability, and a commitment to continuous learning and growth. Aspiring leaders can glean invaluable insights from the experiences of successful CEOs, paving their paths to corporate leadership with purpose and determination. So, the next time you find yourself at the precipice of leadership, remember, CEOs aren’t superhuman—they’re individuals who’ve embraced the art of leadership with passion and purpose, and so can you.

This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.

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