A Hat Doesn’t Make a Captain: 3 Traits of a C-Suite Genius

What makes an executive successful? Consider traits such as risk taking and never relying on the status quo.

Thanks to the omnipresent threat of disruption, companies need to be ready to change paths at a second's notice when they hit stormy waters. To be able to do this, they need a talented and determined C-suite with two hands on the wheel.

For success in the C-suite, company leaders often turn to data to make better decisions, support growth strategies, and achieve results. But, these leaders are often rebels, outliers, and people with unique ways of looking at businesses, and the problems that need solving within them.

We decided to take a closer look at these folks to find out what separates a garden-variety senior executive from a true, C-suite innovator. To do this, we interviewed 30 of our most successful clients in industries such as insurance, pharmaceuticals and banking, and derived what we believe to be the key traits of today’s most successful C-suite leaders. Here are a few findings:

They don’t follow trends just for the sake of it. Top CEOs understand the value of keeping a startup mentality and staying agile, even if they’re leading an established enterprise. C-suite geniuses are well aware of Albert Einstein’s famous saying,“Insanity is repeating the same task and expecting different results.” So, if they realize something’s not working out, they will challenge the status quo to change it.

While there’s plenty of buzz surrounding augmented reality and virtual reality, big data and personalization, it’s perfectly healthy for CEOs to take a step back, analyze the value these technologies bring to the company, and decide whether they’re worth keeping around.

One of our clients, for example, hardly saw an ROI in personalization; after two and a half years, the solution only yielded a 0.9% lift in revenue. That bank’s CEO found it more profitable to target customers with micro segments, which used AI to inform how to serve the customer with the right offerings, at the right time. In going against the grain, the bank saw a 11% percent growth in deposits, and its NPS score increased by 18%. It found its own way to produce a record breaking Q3 and Q4.

So just because everyone is doing it -- including your competitors – it does not mean your company needs to follow like sheep. Great executives understand how to balance the cost with the buzz, and jump off the bandwagon every once in a while to find what works best for their specific business.

They thrive in the dynamic environment where their business operates. The smartest C-suite leaders understand that a business landscape shifts quickly, and the solutions that worked well last year, may well fall flat today. According to this BCG report, the importance of speed in innovation is rising. So top CEOs are always looking for ways to quickly improve, because even a small increase in performance can translate into higher revenue.

Just take a look Philips, a company best known for its lightbulbs. Over the years the company has progressed from typical CFL light bulbs, to LED bulbs, and then to flat LED bulbs, a design that cut the price in half. But now it’s introduced Philips Hue lights, a wireless lighting system expected to be the next big thing in lighting. 

Phillips could have continued developing good, old lightbulbs, a product everyone needs and would continue to buy. Yet it has constantly pushed the boundaries to set themselves apart from competition, and in doing so the company has been a key player in moving its entire industry forward.

They aren’t afraid to take risks. For visionary leaders, there’s no such thing as business as usual. Top CEOs understand that a series of smart, calculated risks paves the way for a better ROI -- and more -- that putting all their eggs in one basket in terms of partnerships can reduce competitiveness, quality, and even break the business completely.

When it comes time to make partnerships, great CEOs don’t just focus on big name companies with prominent reputations. In fact, they do the opposite. They take chances with small, innovative companies to differentiate themselves from the crowd.

“Ironically, startups and established companies would both improve their success rates if they collaborated instead of competed,” reads the this Harvard Business Review article, Big Companies Should Collaborate with Startups. “Startups and established companies bring two distinct and equally integral skills to the table. Startups excel at giving birth to successful proof of concepts; larger companies are much better at successfully scaling proof of concepts.”

In effect, big-player Campbell Soup Company is investing $125 million to fund food startups and better keep up with smaller and innovative companies.

Consider too that Google (and later Alphabet) has acquired upwards of 200 companies to increase innovation. While not everyone can run at Google speed, it’s worth following suit at a smaller scale, and "risk" working with small innovators to drive operations forward.

Fluency in ROI. Strong members of the C-suite are always able to clearly demonstrate ROI and qualify the value of these to the departments they lead. We found 9 in 10 CEOs spend organization resources on optimizing capital assets, while only 3 in 10 spend revenue in building non-core expertise in house.

Top C-suite executives use tools not only to guide strategic decisions at the company level, but to help allocate funds at a granular level. With a machine-learning based decision optimization tool, for example, executive teams can focus on answering questions like "What would happen if we invest more in the current product vs. the new product?" or "Should we increase our marketing spending?" Once they have these results, the C-suite may focus their energy on certain areas to increase the odds, increasing ROI.

C-suite executives who thrive have a different way of looking at things. They don’t follow the status quo. They aren’t afraid to take risks. They understand where ROI comes from. And they take advantage of the fast-paced business environment instead of remaining stagnant. Anything less, and innovation is sure to stall.

Manmit Shrimali is founder and CEO of Dextro Analytics Inc., a business consultancy that combines analytics with AI technology and human learning to help businesses make different decisions and optimize marketing, operations, and supply chain.

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