Spot a future chief executive

You probably give considerable thought to the recruitment process, producing carefully worded advertisements, setting inventive tests and sitting through rigorous interviews, but how well do you know your existing staff?

If an outsider asked you to predict the chief executive of 2020, from within the ranks of current staff, would you be able to produce, and justify, an educated response? And what do you need from a chief executive?

Ameet Thakkar, principal consultant of business psychologists OPP, says: “Our research has found that, although there are many different styles of leadership, all successful leaders achieve four basic goals – increasing trust and communication with staff, encouraging healthy professional conflict, building organisational capability and driving organisational strategy. It’s these goals that you should have in mind when looking for your future chief executives.”

Trust and communication

The days of ruling by force are long gone – or at least they should be. Today’s chief executive needs to be a people person. They need to be approachable, and their appearance in the kitchen should not put the fear of god into the staff. On the other hand, although this will depend on your company culture, you don’t really want a CEO who expects to be mates with the staff.

Keep an eye on communicative employees – the kind of people who run the softball team or make a point of mixing with colleagues from across the business. It may be a cliché, but you need to find a natural leader, someone who inspires confidence without being overwhelming. Consider how people perform in the semi-public forum, for instance whether they take an active part in staff meetings.

Professional conflict

A good CEO needs to know the right buttons to press to get the best out of their staff. You will need someone who can generate just the right level of professional conflict – enough to improve production without causing friction. This skill should be relatively easy to identify among existing staff. Look for effective team leaders, or people whose teams are exceeding their targets and deadlines.

Organisational capability

You will need someone who can make – and keep – the organisation competitive. Someone who knows what the competitors are doing, and how to keep one step ahead. Look at the level below the board to see who has the commercial skills you need, but remember that being CEO is very different to being chief information officer, or head of a business unit. Never assume that past success is a guarantee of future success.


A chief executive needs to be able to walk the walk. You need to find someone unafraid to take educated risks, and to have a very strong sense of where the company should be going, and what it needs to get it there. Look out for someone who has very clearly bought into the company culture, and who makes a point of applying the strategy to their own work.

“The key to it all”, says Thakkar, “is giving yourself as much chance of being right as possible. Don’t rely on gut feelings, interviews or simply a good track record. Use every form of assessment you can get your hands on.”

Top tips

  1. Identify them early
  2. Keep an eye out for bad habits
  3. Assess them properly

Expert’s view… identifying leaders

What are the biggest challenges?

All CEOs need a good grasp of strategy and the ability to energise an entire company behind the one they choose – but how do you identify this latent capability? Most people aren’t called upon to demonstrate such exceptional attributes in their current (non-chief executive) roles.

Even if you have spotted your potential top leaders, you then face the challenge of managing their competitiveness with each other. Potential chief executives are likely to be very ambitious by nature, and that inherent ambition can often have a detrimental impact on working relationships and ultimately on organisational effectiveness.

What should you avoid doing?

A common pitfall is ignoring bad habits. Your target future CEO may possess some of the essential skills, but don’t assume their weaknesses will improve without great self-awareness, combined with willingness and effort to change.

Avoid choosing people who’ve shown that they are focused on their own agenda. Your potential leader’s ambitions should be tempered by an ability to put the company’s goals ahead of their own.

Most importantly, don’t skimp on assessment. Too often, companies spend less time and effort assessing their future CEO than they do with their graduates. A lot of faith is put simply in looking at track records and good networks. This can be a huge mistake. Big budgets, authority and the weight and complexity of steering an entire company can de-rail even the best executives. And, of course, the more senior you become the better you get at faking it during an interview. The more rigorous your assessment, the better.

Top tips

  • Involve staff in strategic planning early on in their careers – that way they get a chance to hone some of the skills they’ll need when they become chief executive.
  • Engage your people in the company’s purpose from the outset – by giving your people an emotional stake in your company, you’ll breed the kind of loyalty needed.
  • Let your choice of future CEO be led by your business plan – a company planning diversification over the next 10 years will need a boss with different strengths to one focused on becoming niche specialists.

Ameet Thakkar

Principal consultant, OPP

Further information

CEO: The Low Down on the Top Job

Kevin Kelly, Financial Times/ Prentice Hall

£20.00, ISBN 0273713531

The CEO within

Joseph L Bower, Harvard Business School Press

£19.99, ISBN 1422104613

Tough at the top

Coaching at the top table

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