While I can't possibly know what they were thinking, here's what I saw that worked

To become a CEO, think like a CEO

For most of us there is a process to career success. First we need to establish our footing, then learn the ropes, demonstrate our talents, and gradually move up the corporate ladder until we reach the very top. After all, becoming CEO is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?

But only so many people can make it to C-Level, and fewer still actually become a CEO. Probably because most don’t understand that they need to think like a CEO, in order to become one.

So how does a CEO think?

Over the last 35 years I’ve been lucky to work with hundreds of organizations, and have had the privilege to meet, observe, and work with several amazing CEOs. (And a few not-so-amazing CEOs of course, but this post isn’t about them.)

Every one of those top CEOs had their own unique quirks and qualities, and I would be hard-pressed to try and list them all. But where they all seemed to excel and overlap, was in their approach to both problems and possibilities.

They thought like a top CEO. And that is why they were so good at their job.

And while I can’t possibly know what they were thinking, here’s what I saw that worked:

Define your vision.

CEOs are often seen as someone that plans where they want to go, and how to get there. They seem to be able to take a natural curiosity for how things work (or don’t work), then develop a plan to make them work even better.

Part of that talent is simply the knack to look farther ahead than everyone else. While the CFO is concerned about how this quarter’s results will look at year-end, IT is mired in the depths of a core conversion, and Marketing is anxiously watching the ROI from the latest campaign, CEOs are thinking about the future. They want to be well-positioned in a growth market for their products; know that their brand has a deep, emotional connection with its target audiences; and that they have the right people in place to make it happen.

But the trick is to be able to define that vision in an easy-to-understand way that allows everyone to start working towards a unified goal. Top CEOs know that the trick is to keep that vision not too-wordy, and also not too-short. After all, a rambling monologue can cause way too many blank stares, and severe brevity can cause as much confusion as too much talking – especially when the boss is talking.

Keep good company.

Ordinary problems can be handled by the usual process. But if you are trying to do amazing things, then you need to work with amazing people. People with different experiences, different ideas, and different opinions. They might be new, or they might be hiding in plain sight, having never been given the chance to show what they are capable of.

Smart CEOs will recognize people with different and diverse talents, and go out of their way to engage them because of that potential. They recognize that each person is different, and will bring a different perspective; that an introvert and an extrovert may have different communication styles, but each can contribute in their own way.

They also understand that different experiences can point out any bias or mindset that may be slanting the process. It is extremely easy for a CEO to fall into the trap of thinking that their way is the only way to get things done. By encouraging everyone to develop their creativity and build their future, CEOs can provide the opportunity for those team members, and the company, to excel.

Engage and collaborate.

Once the team has been chosen for a specific problem, an open-minded approach can spark a lot of innovation and creativity as well.

After all, no one person can have all of the answers, so some CEOs prefer to brainstorm more like an improv troupe. Everyone is encouraged to chime in, no idea is too crazy, and no one is allowed to say anything negative. Instead, every comment that follows has to be a suggestion that builds on the previous idea, sometimes called the “yes, and…” approach. Negativity is negated, and by allowing everyone to improvise and improve on the process, the team wins as a team.

Regardless of the approach to getting started, good CEOs are transparent about the goals and the process, and build a team that works together towards a solution.

Prioritize getting things done.

Day-to-day things still have to get done. And there are always new problems that pop up. That’s why the CEO needs to prioritize the vision, remove any roadblocks, and continually build momentum and support with the people and resources that are needed to make it a reality.

One good way to do that is to build a timeline with milestones that allows everyone to keep the end goal in sight. Not only can they continue to contribute throughout the process, but they can also see and adapt to the changes ahead.

When you can help people realize that “it’s always been done this way” isn’t a good enough reason to avoid trying a better option, new ideas have room to grow.

Make decisions that resonate.

From removing roadblocks to giving the order to launch a new idea, CEOs always have to be the ultimate decision-maker. That’s their job. To lead. To make the right decisions. Decisions that resonate with the people you are leading.

Good CEOs will make those decisions based on the best information they can gather, rather than personal preference. But great CEOs rely on their teams to research and build the best options. Then, when they have to make a decision along the way, they also explain their reasons why they chose one direction over another.

And when the project is complete, they step back to give credit to the team that made it happen. After all, a great CEO is respected. And you only get respect when you show it.

You, too, can think like a CEO.

Every day you gain more experience. You notice little things that seem to be snags in the processes. You have already started coming up with better solutions, simply by utilizing your creativity.

Now build on that vision. Start making suggestions. Take on responsibilities and gather feedback from your co-workers. Work together as a team to solve the problem. Then repeat, taking on an even bigger problem.

Thinking like a CEO is the approach you should take to your job, no matter your current title.

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