The Corner Office: How Top CEOs Made It and How You Can Too

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I magine people working at a large company.

They're all middle managers, about 35 years old. They're all smart, collegial and hard-working. So what will determine who gets the next promotion, and the one after that? Which of them, when the time comes, will get that corner office? In other words, what does it take to lead an organisation — whether it's a sports team, a charity, a startup or a multinational corporation? What are the X factors? Interviews I conducted with more than 70 chief executives and other leaders for my weekly Corner Office column in the New York Times, point to five essentials for success, qualities that most of those chief executives share and look for in people they hire.

The good news is these traits are not genetic. They're developed through attitude, habit and discipline; factors within your control. They will make you a better employee, manager and leader. They will lift the trajectory of your career and speed your progress. These aren't theories. They come from decades of the collective experience of top executives who have learned first-hand what it takes to succeed.

They have watched others attempt a similar climb and noticed the qualities that set people apart. These CEOs offered myriad lessons and insights on the art of managing and leading, but they all shared five qualities: passionate curiosity, battle-hardened confidence, team smarts, a simple mindset and fearlessness. Many successful chief executives are passionately curious people. It is a side of them rarely seen in the media and in investor meetings, and there is a reason for that.

In business, CEOs are supposed to project confidence and breezy authority. Certainty is the game face they wear.

The Corner Office How Top Ceos Made it and How You Can Too

But get them away from these familiar scripts and a different side emerges. They share stories about mistakes and failures. They ask big-picture questions. They wonder why things work the way they do and whether those things can be improved upon. They want to know people's stories, and what they do. It is this relentless questioning that leads entrepreneurs to spot opportunities and helps managers understand the people who work for them, and how to get them to work together effectively.

It is no coincidence that more than one executive uttered the same phrase when describing what, ultimately, is the CEO's job: "I am a student of human nature. CEOs are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students. The letters could just as easily stand for chief education officer. Though chief executives are paid to have answers, their greatest contributions to their organisations may be asking the right questions. They recognise they can't have the answer to everything, but they can push their company in new directions and marshal the collective energy of their employees by asking the right questions.

Some people embrace adversity, even relish it, and they have a track record of overcoming it. They have battle-hardened confidence. And because the best predictor of behaviour is past performance, many chief executives interview job candidates about how they dealt with failure in the past.

They want to know if somebody is the kind of person who takes ownership of challenges or starts looking for excuses. When you have a difficult situation, some people just take it and run with it. Some people see adversity and they cower, as talented as they are.

Leadership and innovation secrets from America s top CEOs

You could ask them about the adversity they had dealt with in the past, but you never really know the intensity of that adversity. Many CEOs seem driven by a strong work ethic forged in adversity. As they moved up in organisations, the attitude remained the same: this is my job, and I'm going to own it. Because of that attitude, they are rewarded with more challenges and promotions. At some point, the notion of being a team player became devalued in corporate life. It has been reduced to a truism: I work on a team, therefore I am a team player.

It is a point captured in a cartoon by Mike Baldwin , by Mike Baldwin, in which an interviewer says to a job candidate: "We need a dedicated team player. How are you at toiling in obscurity? The most effective executives are more than just team players. They understand how teams work and how to get the most out of the group.

There are too many variables, many of them beyond your control, including luck, timing and personal chemistry. The career trajectories of the C.


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Others had surprisingly low grades in school. So what explains it? Are there some qualities — beyond the obvious, like hard work and perseverance — that explain why these people ultimately got the top jobs? They want to know how things work, and wonder how they can be made to work better. Second, C. Discomfort is their comfort zone. I just naturally gravitate to the fire. The third theme is how they managed their own careers on their way to the top.

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They focus on doing their current job well, and that earns them promotions. That may sound obvious. By all means, have career goals, share them with your bosses, and learn everything you can about how the broader business works. And yes, be savvy about company politics watch out in particular for the show ponies who try to take credit for everything.

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But focus on building a track record of success, and people will keep betting on you. Only later did Ms. Lubel whose maiden name was Smith learn that the C. If only it were that simple. And people are, well, complicated. Better to understand leadership as a series of paradoxes. A bit of chaos can help foster creativity and innovation, but too much can feel like anarchy.

You have to create a sense of urgency, but also have the patience to bring everybody on the team along. Despite what I just wrote, if you were to force me to rank the most important qualities of effective leadership, I would put trustworthiness at the top.

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