The Perfect CEO: What Companies Look for in Their Next Leader
by Ellen Stuhlmann

Given today's economic climate, companies are in search of leaders who can steer their organization through challenging times. But what are they looking for specifically? To get some insight, we put that question to two experts: Beverly Lieberman, president of Halbrecht Lieberman Associates, a Stamford, Conn.- based executive placement firm that specializes in information technology; and Don Andersson, founder and president of the Andersson Group and author of the book Hire for Fit, which examines how companies can find the best executive for their organization. Here are the attributes they say companies want.

Agents of change with a global perspective

As companies seek to compete in a global market, they're increasingly in search of executives who are tuned in to more than just their own industry. They want executives who keep tabs on the economy in general and global events that may affect their business, says Lieberman. "So they need someone with a global perspective, not an insular, single-industry person, but someone with experience from multiple industries who knows how things work and has resources in a host of areas," she says.

A global perspective is only one piece of the puzzle, however. Companies also want leaders who are willing and able to bring about change. "They're really looking for out of the box thinking, especially in growth industries," says Lieberman. "They want people who have embraced change in the past and have a track record of selling their ideas." For many, a certain element of risk taking is a sought-after attribute, she says.

Although not all companies do it effectively, what they should do when hiring a new executive is to assess how prepared the executive is to bring about change, says Andersson. "They are certainly not being brought in to maintain the status quo," he says of the new leader. And while nearly every executive has experienced change, "that doesn't mean they've had the opportunity in their professional development to learn how to be an agent of change." The skill set required to effect positive change is very distinct. "Without those skills, instead of using the finesse of a surgeon's scalpel to bring about change, they use a meat cleaver, leaving everything around the change bloody and bruised," Andersson says.

Raising questions without raising defenses

Hand in hand with the ability to effect change is the ability to recognize and respect other peoples' different approaches to problem solving.

"It is a skill that is really in real demand, although rarely articulated," says Andersson. And it often comes down to the words we choose to use when talking to others. Instead of dismissing another person's idea as unworkable, for example, saying "help me understand how that fits," or "help me see what is it you see that I may be missing" can open up new insights. At the very least, it will force the speaker to rethink and better articulate his or her arguments. "That ability to raise questions is very important," says Andersson, but it must be carefully done. "If we really want to be creative, we recognize that if we can define the result that we are trying to achieve and then free people to find different ways to reach that result, we can maximize the benefits and minimize the downside," he explains. The result: more effective problem solving and decision-making.

Team builders and leaders

Teambuilding is one of those skills that is endlessly touted but hard to define - and often hard to find. But what were once seen as soft, less-important skills are now better understood by cutting edge companies as critical attributes, says Andersson. At the highest levels and throughout the organization, "what they are looking for are people who can work with others and can use their experiences and differences to make more quality decisions."

Lieberman agrees. "I'm always being asked to find executives who are good managers who can build and motivate teams; who can help their staff build their careers," she says. "Someone who is tuned in to his or her organization and not just focused on the business or the project, but really is a nurturing care-taking executive."

Better still if the executive has a loyal following he or she can bring to the new organization, adds Lieberman. "It is too hard to find good people, so they want someone who can bring in a new person or two who can support [the executive]," she says.

Multicultural and diverse candidates

The global nature of business has ratcheted up the need for executives with multi-cultural sensitivity. "I'm often looking for someone who has worked abroad, speaks several languages and is willing to relocate," says Lieberman. Even if the position has no immediate call for relocation, the willingness to be flexible is a positive attribute she says. "It's really hard to find because today the group of people that are being sought are men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, so they are people who usually have families and they may have a trailing spouse who has a career as well," she says.

In addition, Lieberman says she increasingly gets requests to find female executives. "And if possible I'm being asked to find minorities within the female ranks." The reason: companies are far more tuned in to their customer base today. "Companies want to get close to their customers and, guess what, their customers fit more than one profile," she says.

Physical and mental fitness

It may not be something employers can ask about outright, but they do have interest in the physical and mental health of executives they are considering hiring. In a society with an ever growing awareness of the importance of a healthy lifestyle, and given the level of stress executives are expected to manage " it goes without saying that we try to find people that can really rise to the occasion, and that often means that I'm looking for executives who take care of themselves physically and psychologically," says Lieberman. She often tries to gauge what kind of stress executive candidates have in their current jobs and how they deal with it. "Frankly, every company that hires a top executive is saying 'we want somebody who can work 24-7."

Looks, acts, walks and talks like an executive

It may not be fair, but talent and intelligence simply aren't enough in today's competitive world. "Packaging is important," says Lieberman. "That has to do with your physical appearance -- wearing clothes that make you look your best, knowing what colors make you look your best, having an 'executive' bearing - all these things go into how you are viewed, in addition to your brain and experience and track record," she says.

Despite often being on the other side of the desk as an interviewer, many executives find themselves nervous and ineffective when they are the interviewees. "Coaching and practice and working with a good recruiter or professional coach can be extremely valuable," says Lieberman, who also encourages coaching for executives uncomfortable with public speaking.

Andersson agrees. "I see executive after executive saying 'I can learn all I need to learn just by going through the process and thinking about it a little bit,'" he says. "But they need to know what they need to have developed before they can actually do it. Coaches can help with that."


Ellen Stuhlmann is Managing Director of ExecuNet. ExecuNet is recognized as the Internet's most comprehensive resource for effective career management, exclusively for executives and senior-level managers with salaries above $100,000. Founded in 1988 and online since 1995, ExecuNet is the nation's first and most respected online executive career site. ExecuNet is a community of senior level executives, and has served more than 50,000 executives and 5,000 companies and executive recruiters by posting more than 30,000 executive positions annually.

Reproduced with permission of ExecuNet.

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