7 Habits of Highly Effective Tech Company CEOs

CEO watcher and analyst Robe Enderle outlines the key ways you can improve your leadership ability

When I was at IBM, I spent some time in the Executive Resource program, which is designed specifically to prepare someone to be a CEO. The program includes classes by top executives and military officers who either were CEOs themselves or were on the short path to becoming a CEO.

Outside the Executive Resource program, I've also met or studied a number of CEOs, including Thomas Watson Jr., Steve Jobs, Louis Gerstner, Bill Gates and a variety of others. Each had unique skills, and no one was perfect in all things - though Watson came closest. Some were founders, some the sons of founders and some hired to fix broken companies, but each stood out in succeeding where peers in the same period failed.

One thing I've concluded: There really is no CEO 101. The best we can do is offer a basic set of rules that CEOs should follow based on the best practices of their peers. I'll walk you through the key best practices that generally assured the success of one or more of their efforts. Clearly, this would make more sense as a book than as an article, but the book will have to wait.

1. Build a Loyal Team

I doubt everyone who worked for Jobs actually liked the guy, but all were handpicked by him and loyal to him. This is one key characteristic of a successful CEO: When the CEO says jump, employees are already a couple feet off the ground. Senior executives may bicker and posture against each other, but the successful CEO has a team that supports him, that has his back rather than looking for a place to stick the knife.

If Carly Fiorina had one major failure at Hewlett-Packard, she didn't seem to know how to build and maintain a loyal executive team and, as a result, her failure at HP was largely due to her being shot from the inside. Her most loyal supporter, her CMO, put in the final knife when she left to join Apple - and she was far from the first to depart.

With a loyal team of qualified people who have balanced skills, there's very little a company can't do. With a disloyal team looking to take advantage of the CEO's failures, or simply not be blamed for them, there's little a company can do.

2. Understand the Power of Perception

While many consider Jobs the guru here, thanks in large part to the landmark ‘I'm a Mac’ campaign that rebrand Steve Ballmer's Microsoft as foolish and ineffective, Gerstner actually understood this better. He hired a handpicked marketing team of outsiders to change how IBM was perceived long before he could change the reality of what IBM was during his turnaround effort.

No company is all good or all bad. Even a troubled company can have enough assets that, if they are emphasised and the problems are downplayed, it can appear more valuable and its products more attractive. Most CEOs don't really understand the power of perception. Carol Bartz struggled with this at Yahoo, and she lasted less than three years there.

At the other extreme, CEOs can venture too far from reality and simply destroy the company's credibility. (Then again, this can work. Look at P.T. Barnum, who created an empire by getting people to believe in the impossible.)

3. Never Underestimate the Power of Intelligence

This goes back to Sun Tzu, who argued that intelligence was the general's most important resource. EMC's Joe Tucci stands out as the one CEO who seems to understand the importance of intelligence. EMC’s efforts to use data analytics to analyse its customers, its partners' customers and even its competitors' customers stand out in an industry of cobbler's children when it comes to actually using the products that technology companies build to their own internal advantage.

All too often these days, you see CEOs surrounded by people telling them what they want to hear. Given how common confirmation bias is, that's deadly. John Akers, the only IBM CEO ever fired, was the poster child for this problem. While it wasn't really his fault, the practice of protecting the CEO from bad information almost killed the company.

If you don't know what's really going on with your employees, customers, competitors or market, it isn't a question of if you will fail. It's only a question of when.

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