I’ve been lucky enough in my career to have had the opportunity to interact with Fortune 100 CEOs like Steve Ballmer, Sam Palmisano, Hank Greenberg, “Sy” Sternberg and others. I cannot offer a clear declarative as to how they became some of the top CEOs in the world. However, I do believe that I can offer some observed, shared traits of these top executives and others like them.

ceos_stand_out_from_the_crowdCEOs typically drive the culture of an organization. For example, Hank was famous for flying into his 100+ countries where he had insurance businesses and having executive meetings in his plane. Any of his executives who did not have the right answers to his questions were fired the same day his jet departed. Hank led by fear. Steve on the other hand, face to face, was a really nice guy. He was real and spoke with people at their level. Many critics of Steve suggested that, as CEO of Microsoft, he was too “tactical” and not a “visionary.” This preposition was proven to me personally when Steve told me that the key numbers he looked at each day were the number of PC Sales.

Hank built the largest global insurance organization in history. He covered the globe with operations in over 110 countries. He was the only executive who was allowed to enter China with a solely owned business. When the financial crisis hit he was disgraced. Steve left Microsoft with a view that he was not innovative enough. What does it all mean?

They own their presence.

It is important to self asses how you as a leader present yourself. As a leader, how you present yourself defines how senior and subordinate management will interact with you. Your presence creates a presumption as to how your management practices and traits will unfold. A strong and bold presence will suggest to others that your leadership style will be somewhat militaristic. In contrast, a presence of equality and caring will suggest an interactive and collaborative leadership style.

What management presence is best for you? Your presence is something that you should take special note of as this is how you will be initially perceived by those you interact with. So how you present yourself should reflect who you really are. Far too often, leaders over-present and under-deliver. The key: know who you are and how you successfully manage and present yourself. Your peers and subordinates can then coalesce to your leadership style.

They stay consistent in mood and style.

As a leader, it is key to interact with your superiors, peers and subordinates in a predictable and consistent way. If you react differently, you are positioning yourself for a suboptimal leadership outcome. When, as a leader, you change how you interact within your organization, you are not only bringing to bear the situational disruption but also your personal disruption, which stands in the way of solving the problem you are trying to resolve.

They lead with a recognition-based mindset.

Human beings, whether it is a Steve Ballmer or the person who cleans your floors and empties your trash, respond to recognition. That’s why football teams have Super Bowls, baseball teams have World Series, sales teams have salesperson of the month awards, etc. Your interaction with superiors, peers and subordinates should reflect recognition, when appropriate.

Having a recognition mindset predisposes you to validate all the individuals you interact with as relevant and meaningful. Leaders often only focus on day-to-day organizational performance. For subordinates especially, this mindset often results in your subordinates coming to work like “it’s just another day at the office.“ The result: average performance. Subordinates keep doing what they’re doing to just get through the day. As a leader you become branded as a leader who just keeps doing what they are supposed to be doing. You and your team are average.

In contrast, a leader who has recognition-based mindset, changes organizational normal behavior to one of optimal behavior. Why? Organizational performance is a journey rather than an event. As a leader with this mindset you make special personal recognition of day-to-day achievements of your subordinates. Recognition is a validation to your team members that you note what they are achieving and recognize the contribution they are making. Recognition feels good to anyone who receives it. So what’s the result? Your team members are going to work harder more efficiently and faster to achieve that next point of recognition. This is the human mindset and can be used as an asset or liability. The choice is up to you as a leader.

They teach us all how to become successful leaders.

A library could be built and filled with all the books written on how leaders should act and behave. The narratives on this subject are endless. However, the one thing I can tell you which was consistent in my interactions with Steve Ballmer, Sam Palmisano, Hank Greenberg and Sy Sternberg were that they each put forward their real and lived presence, were consistent in mood and style, and all had a recognition-based mindset.

As a leader, if you focus on these three areas in your practice of management you will have a profound impact on your organization.


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