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How to Become an Exceptional CEO

By January 30, 2012Article

I count two achievements as the most significant of my life. The first was the building of two successful men – my sons – and the other is the building of a successful company. I created a simple formula for both tasks and continue to rely on it today. Clear vision + ability to convey information + compassion = positive outcomes. The secret to exceptional results is that there are no secrets. Leading a company well doesn’t come from secrets, and magic tricks can’t get you there.

As the recently appointed CEO and president of EDGAR Online, it’s time for me to draw upon the formula again as I move the business into the next stage of development and create a solid company culture. My job as chief executive is to create an environment that benefits employees, shareholders and customers. That’s a daunting objective for any new CEO. Staying focused on the vision, the communication and the compassion is key. There are five tasks that I’m focused on today, and these can be helpful to any CEO hoping to lead an exceptional organization.

#1 Define your leadership style

I’m not heavily influenced by any particular business icon. I love Steve Ballmer’s energy. I admired Steve Jobs for his ability to understand a market before it existed and create the right products to serve that market. I try to drive operating efficiencies like Jack Welch. My employees, though, would likely say that my leadership style is very Bob, not Jobs, Ballmer or Welch. Most importantly, they would say I have a leadership style.

It’s not so important that your leadership style be a derivation of someone great, but that it is passionate, consistent, predictable and effective in the context of your business and with your staff.

#2 Apply past experiences

James Joyce said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” Anyone who has a long enough career to reach the CEO’s office has probably made at least a few mistakes. That is a good thing. Our past experiences teach us what to do more of today and what to avoid at all costs.

I think this is particularly true in the case of mergers and acquisitions. Many CEOs become inappropriately determined to execute acquisitions to create scale, fill product holes, or consolidate competition. M&As are a great way to help build a company, but they can’t be done without a clear and concise success scorecard and an early vision for how the merged companies will integrate. It’s the concept of selecting “best of breed” after a deal is flawed. Organization, personnel, product, go-to-market strategies and the like must be in place before the deal is consummated. Independent of whether these decisions are ultimately right or wrong, a lack of clarity on the day a deal is announced is a certain mistake and one that many CEOs need to make before learning how to get it right.

#3 Know what you tolerate

I know where I stand on issues that matter to me, and I make sure those around me know, too. When this information is clear, those who work with you can find the spaces where they innovate and excel, and steer clear of the areas that will waste their time and yours. My teams, for example, know I have a low tolerance for faking it. When employees don’t know something, I prefer they say so and then go find out the answer.

I’d rather have office politics pollute someone else’s business, not mine. I want to see people on time and dressed professionally. You might want to see something else. Communicate where you stand so your staff isn’t left guessing and inadvertently veering from the company policies.

#4 Hire smart

I don’t know everything. Neither do you. That’s why we need to hire very, very carefully. I look for employees who are committed to what they do – whether they are receptionists or senior executives – and who know a lot about something that I might not know. When CEOs are surrounded by other bright, knowledgeable, dedicated people, we become more effective in what we do.

#5 Create the vision

At any time, I hope you could stop an employee walking through the halls of my company and get a solid answer to any one of these questions:

  • What does this company do?
  • Why does it do that?
  • How does it do it better than everyone else?
  • Why is the company doing it now?

Your vision means more when everyone can see it, describe it and believe it. That kind of culture becomes a powerful influence throughout the business in terms of innovation, production and market standing.

There are no secrets to becoming an exceptional CEO. There are no easy-to-implement tips. But there are broad guidelines executives can follow to infuse their own passion and commitment into the businesses they serve. Share your time with your employees, communicate freely with them, and you’re far more likely to reach positive outcomes.

Robert J. Farrell serves in the role of president and CEO of EDGAR Online. Before joining EDGAR® Online, he was chairman and CEO of Metastorm. Prior to Metastorm, Bob was president of the Americas region for Mercator Software. He was also chief operating officer at LeadingSide, and earlier in his career, he held positions at several large organizations including E. F. Hutton, American Express and Grumman Data Systems.