The six mindsets of extraordinary CEOs with Carolyn Dewar

What separates successful CEOs from average CEOs is not what many people think. It’s not much about their experience, skills, or abilities.  It comes down to their mindsets. For episode 062 of my podcast, ‘The World Class Leaders Show’, I invited Carolyn Dewar, Senior Partner in McKinsey & Company’s San Francisco office. Carolyn co-leads McKinsey & Company’s CEO and Board Excellence practice, partnering with many Fortune 100 CEOs to maximize their effectiveness. She is also the co-author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-selling book, ‘CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets that Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest’.

Fortune Favours The Bold

The first mindset is simple: be bold. And it also may seem obvious. You do need to be bold, but you also need to be right. If you take a risk and are wrong, it could be detrimental to the future of your organization.  But to not be bold at all, there’s a chance you may miss out on the outperformance that you’re striving for. Just take a look at Mastercard and their decision to “kill cash”, or General Motor’s resource allocation. Having a bold vision for the future means thinking about possibilities within that future that you may not see right now. If you don’t, at some point comes the inevitable moment where you complain that it just isn’t enough. It’s the time to think big and outside of the box, and as the CEO, you’re the one who can give permission to the organization to think a little bigger.  “So that’s what boldness looks like. Placing some bets, putting your money where your mouth is, and going for it.”

Design The Future And Then Find The People That Fit 

The next mindset is treating the soft stuff as you would the hard stuff. Many things surrounding culture, people, and talent are often considered ‘the soft stuff’, and therefore difficult to manage.   But the most successful CEOs simply do not accept this and will treat these as serious business issues. You wouldn’t approach an operational issue by saying, “we’ll make our best efforts”, yet this is how talent and culture are often looked at. And instead of choosing someone to be part of your team on the basis of them being perfect on paper, review the roles available with the future in mind, and find the people that are perfect for that role. Successful CEOs have the same amount of passion and ambition for the culture within the business itself, as they do for the product on offer. That’s what’s meant by treating the soft stuff as you would the hard stuff. “These CEOs knew exactly what shifts they needed to make happen, whether it was a cultural shift, right at Sony, it was a shift towards the wow factor, right at Microsoft to hear about growth mindset. They knew what shift they were trying to make.”

There’s No ‘I’ In Team

As the CEO of an organization, it’s not feasible to run the business all by yourself.  Besides, it’s lonely at the top. The CEO overlooks six independent jobs, and no one else sees all six other than the CEO, who is spinning all the plates and connecting all the dots. They look ahead strategically to see what’s coming around the corner, and the most successful CEOs have built in the time to do it, realizing that if they didn’t do it, then no one would.  But one of the best ways to make it less lonely is if you’re not the only one being that enterprise leader. The psychology of some of the most successful CEOs aims for their team to walk into that meeting as a joint leadership team for the company. “There’s a lot of other stuff that the CEO is doing other than the day-to-day. So, you need that team to be operating effectively together. And it’s a real investment in time.”  Having a team of individual, incredible leaders is fine – the high achievers will undoubtedly perform well, and they are great for short-term results. Still, a team that’s made up of incredible leaders is even better, and it all stems back to building that company culture, as well as trust.

Make The Board A Part Of Your Journey

Board meetings are often seen as something to be tolerated – you sit through the board meeting and then you can finally get back to running your business. But perhaps now is the right time to start thinking differently about the dreaded board meeting, and approach them by asking yourself, how do I help the directors help the business? Having a board with relevant skills and experience for your organization is a good start. Educate them on what it is to be a tech company, for example. A board that has the relevant knowledge can then offer you the most useful wisdom for you and your business. It can be the best consulting advice in the world if done right. Plus, it’s free. What matters next is the way in which you interact with them.  “You know, you’re spending every day thinking about your business, they may be a couple of days a month, right? So what’s the information they need so that they have the context, enough context to engage meaningfully and be helpful?” Be open and transparent with your board, about everything they need to know – the good, the bad, and the ugly, what keeps you up at night or any problems that you’re concerned about could arise. They don’t necessarily need to make any decisions there and then, but it provides the board with enough context should it happen later.  Board meetings can become so much more productive when there is an element of trust. And when it’s time to make those tough decisions, the board knows that you haven’t been hiding anything.  Utilize the board meetings and make the most of them – treat them as a friend, and not your enemy. And recognize who on your board you can approach for what topics. 

Ask Yourself ‘Why?’

Any CEO knows that their organization is open to the opinions of external stakeholders, be it the media, public scrutiny, external regulators, your customers, or even your employees – who are obviously internal but key stakeholders.  The challenge here as the CEO is recognizing who to listen to, and who to engage with on what topic. Beyond that, CEOs are now being asked to take a stand on socio-political issues, and you might ask yourself, ‘what does this have to do with my business?’. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to be confronted on these topics, because the reality is that nowadays, potential employees and consumers are basing their final decisions on whether or not they feel good about a company. “There’s this kind of next concentric circle of issues that aren’t in your four walls, but directly affect your business, right?” It’s important to recognize the ‘why’, why you exist as a company, and what is your purpose. And what it is, as the company, that you stand for, and what you’re trying to do in the world. From that, you can begin to understand the ‘why’ of the stakeholders, which in turn can result in a powerful collaboration – looking towards the same goal but from a different perspective. It prompts understanding which in turn helps to connect with others in a surprising and empathetic way.

Do Only What You Can Do

“You recognize that as the CEO, when you walk into a room, how you show up and the energy you bring, has a massive impact whether you’re intentional about it or not, right, you walk down the hallway, and you have a grumpy look on your face. Suddenly, your team is worried that you’re having a bad quarter and the business is bad, right?” As a CEO, you need to understand that every single action you take, and every single word spoken is going to be observed. And so it’s important to be consistent with the culture that you’re wanting to build. If you as the leader are having a bad day and it reflects in your actions, then it’s going to have an impact on those around you. It’s not about faking it. Remain authentic. You may need to compartmentalize – what does the organization need in its leader at each moment? Be it the tough regulatory meetings or sitting down with a customer who’s upset about something. It also doesn’t hurt to remain humble.  Finally, being a CEO comes with a huge responsibility.  There’s a lot of pressure that is put on you and there isn’t a CEO alive who hasn’t faced challenges throughout their time at the top. On the other hand, it’s also an amazing opportunity to make an impact on the world and change lives. Given that these six mindsets are backed up by some of the most high-profile CEOs of today, aspiring CEOs would do well to take them on board. Listen to the podcast related to this article:  
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