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Selecting CEOs with the Right Character Traits

James D. Jameson

As the founder and CEO of a number of my own companies, I’m enjoying now the transition of moving from being a day-to-day operator to being the controlling or major shareholder of more than a half-dozen companies in the fields of aerospace, agriculture, publishing, plastics manufacturing, and real estate.

In my new role, I make evaluations everyday on the performance of each of my top teams – the key people that help my companies’ progress from one year to the next.

As most entrepreneurs know, finding the perfect top team is difficult. When I find the right top team, the company can soar. I do a lot of the recruiting myself and often find that my picks are people already in the company.

I think I’ve been successful in finding good CEOs because I have an understanding of what it means to be in the hot seat, and after many years of experience I can recognize people who possess the character traits I value – broad experience, voracious intellectual curiosity, a sense of respect for others, and objectivity.

When I set out to find top leaders, I usually look for candidates who possess a majority of these characteristics. Of these qualities, I don’t hit on all of them for each of our companies, but a candidate must have some of these qualities and aspire to the rest. Following is a snapshot look at some of the qualities I seek in candidates for top positions in my companies.

Broad Experiences

Why do I value people who’ve had broad experiences in their careers? Broad experiences usually mean a person is a multi-disciplinary thinker. I always want to find someone with multi-disciplinary experiences in the workplace – someone who understands marketing, sales, branding, production, financing, and strategic planning. They don’t have to have run full departments in these areas, but they should have a good sense of each of these disciplines and a good understanding of the big picture.

Early in life I was the CEO and owner of an agricultural construction company. I had to run machines, count the monthly inventory, make journal entries, handle the sales calls, and more. Handling these functions gave me a real understanding of all the aspects of running a business, and the experiences made me a better entrepreneur and top leader. And I’ve found that others with broad experiences, too, make good CEOs and top team members.

Intellectual Curiosity

How do you tell if someone is curious? By the questions they ask or the books that they read? Are they only interested in themselves? Do they pontificate, or are they a good listener? Are they perceptive? Can they go to the next level?

Objectivity

Life can get mired in subjectivism, and we each can polarize ourselves by holding firm to our own points of view. It’s critically important for a top team member to be objective so that he will work to create win-win solutions. Objective people are also usually good negotiators and can fashion an outcome where all constituencies win.

Building Respect

I like our executive teams to consist of people who can be immediately respected by their subordinates and who can build quick trust. Whether working with shareholders, vendors, employees or customers, a good understanding of the philosophical principal of trust creates a win-win scenario. It’s simple – no trust equals no progress.

Vision

Someone with vision sees something someone else can’t see. Having vision gives one a sense of strategy and the ability to predict where the industry and company are going. From my experience, a person with a good sense of strategy will minimize the consequences of a defeat (if it should occur) while maximizing the possibilities for victory.

Pattern Recognition

We want people who can learn from patterns, trends, and history – someone who can be a quick study and avoid making the same mistakes. Why is Warren Buffet so successful? He recognizes patterns, articulates them as principles to his team, and then follows these principles in each of his ventures.

One of our executives is a voracious reader and spends a considerable amount of time studying the patterns in successful companies. This particular executive, for example, made the strategic move to overstock inventory, which is not the norm with most corporations. This overstocking policy, derived from the executive’s pattern recognition skill, allows us to do next-day delivery that gives us a competitive advantage over companies in our industries that take nearly eight weeks to deliver.

Entrepreneurship

All great companies started with a founding entrepreneur. The key in all businesses is to keep a sense of entrepreneurship in the down line evolution of a company. If that culture is lost, there is a high probability that the company will flounder. General Electric prides itself in trying to maintain an entrepreneurial culture. And that is probably why it maintains itself so successfully. In my companies, I’m constantly looking for new products in an entrepreneurial way. It takes guts and capital.

A Sense of Competition 

A sense of competition is needed in all top team members. Even small companies can climb the ladder with the correct set of ingredients, which include competitiveness. In each of our companies, we were able to move step by step up the ladder by out competing other companies.

Appreciation of People

To conclude, it’s important to note that great organizations are made up of great people. Building an organization is like building a team and a good top team must know how to build the rest of the winning team. A winning team includes people who can both get along and disagree on various issues for the good of the company.

While I have found that the above traits are important when recruiting and selecting the top leadership for a company, I have to admit to making some bad choices. In Poland, I went through a sequence of four top leaders in three years before I found the right one (a person who is a wonderful publisher and quality leader). Moving through that many CEOs in such a short time was damaging to our company and draining on employee morale, not to mention costly. All told, my key lesson learned is that if finding great leadership was easy, all companies would be great.

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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