What Do Successful Business Leaders Have in Common?

May 9, 2014 in Executive Presence by sue

Adam Bryant is a Pulitzer Prize award-winning journalist at The New York Times who probably is best known for his long-running column “Corner Office.”

Over the years, Bryant discovered that there is a natural curiosity among readers about the people who make it to the top. Now his insightful new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, gives readers the inside scoop on how business leaders think.

Bryant sat down with 74 CEOs, from companies as diverse as Accenture, Best Buy, Yum! Brands and Zappos. He focused less on success strategies and more on the following three questions:

  • How do you do what you do?
  • How did you learn to do what you do?
  • What lessons have you learned that you can share with others?

Traits CEOs Share

So what do CEOs have in common? Here are few nuggets Bryant found:

  • They listen, learn, assess what’s working, what’s not and why and then make adjustments.
  • They are quick studies.
  • They tend to be good teachers because they understand the process of learning and can explain what they learned to others.

Many CEOs experienced adversity

One factor that readers might find surprising is that many CEOs developed their strong work ethic because at some point in their early lives, they experienced adversity.

Andrew Cosslett, former CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, had a rough childhood, living largely on his own from the time he was about 16. He told Bryant that at an off-site meeting with his top executives he was surprised to learn that “of the 10 people in the room, nine of them had had very challenging teenage years, either with broken homes, family divorces, alcoholic parents, brothers or sisters dying.”

“There’s something about what happened to them as kids that sort of pushed them on. And I think it’s this thing about learning about your own strength that makes you mature more quickly and allows you to progress faster.”

Lessons Learned in the Most Unlikely Places

Gary McCullough told Bryant about an important lesson he learned from the woman who operated the coffee cart back in the days when he worked at The Procter & Gamble. He was amazed by her uncanny ability to predict which people would be successful and which ones wouldn’t: “In her mind, everybody was going to drop the ball at some point. If you’re good with people and people like you and you treat them right, they will pick up the ball for you, and they’re going to run and they’re going to score a touchdown for you. But if they don’t like you, they’re going to let that ball lie there, and you are going to get in trouble.” 

Leaders Are Made, Not Born

For anyone anxious to crack the code of how to rise to the top of an American business organization, it’s refreshing to learn that Bryant’s research indicates that the keys to success are not genetic. Instead, he insists that the necessary traits to rise to the top are developed through attitude, habit and discipline…factors that are within everyone’s control.