The CEO Next Door by Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell

By: Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell



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Do you want to increase the odds of becoming a CEO? Do you want to raise your game by learning from successful CEOs? Are you a new CEO anxious to avoid the pitfalls of the role? This book gives a clear road map on how to get to the top, which skills and behaviors to develop, and how to position yourself as a future CEO.

The book describes the four behaviors that are statistically associated with success— decisiveness, engaging for impact, relentless reliability, and adapting boldly—and how to nurture these behaviors throughout your career. The key is to get results in the right roles and to get noticed for those results. Don’t look at your career as a succession of jobs, but as a portfolio of experiences that show expertise, leadership, and specific skills. The book includes tips on the best way to interview for the position of CEO, what to do in your first six months in the role, and how to manage the board of directors.

Above all, the book emphasizes that successful CEOs are made, not born, and anyone can succeed in the role with the right experiences and training.



There are four behaviors associated with success as a CEO: making decisions with speed and conviction; engaging with others in a way that drives results; relentless reliability; and adapting boldly to new challenges and scenarios. These behaviors are shaped by practice and experience and can be developed at any stage of your career. To get hired as a CEO your career trajectory should give you a wide range of experiences, real leadership opportunities, and in-depth knowledge about your chosen industry. Make sure you are noticed for the results you achieve. Once hired, you have two years to establish yourself as CEO. Move quickly to find any skeletons in the closet and to put the right team in place. Pay attention to the values and style you portray in your inaugural address and be sure to keep your calendar commitments focused on the important long-term issues. Finally, be prepared to spend 20% of your time managing the relationship with your board of directors and get to know them individually in the first six months.


The four CEO genome behaviors

Most people assume that CEOs are born, not made—a bold and brilliant strategist with a flawless resumé and business superpowers. The reality is very different: CEOs come from a range of backgrounds and experiences. To gain insights into today’s CEOs the authors analyzed data from the leadership-advisory firm ghSMART and made a number of surprising discoveries. The most important: becoming a CEO isn’t about background or good fortune, it’s about performance and the kinds of behaviors that can be learned.

Only 7% of the thousands of CEOs in the dataset graduated from an Ivy League school; most did not plan early in life to become a CEO; and, far from being excessively egotistical, the most successful CEOs came from a background that emphasized teamwork and mentoring. Over a third described themselves as introverted and 45% had at least one major career catastrophe. Gender made no difference to whether someone would be a successful CEO although only about 4-6% of the largest companies are led by women. The most successful CEOs pick the right job and surround themselves with the right team. And finally, first-time CEOs are just as likely to succeed—or not—as someone with prior experience.

The authors’ research revealed four CEO Genome Behaviors that are statistically associated with success: decisiveness, engaging for impact, relentless reliability, and adapting boldly. These are all behaviors and habits that are shaped by practice and experience, and that can be developed at any stage of your career. These four behaviors are interconnected; and, which one is the most important at any given time depends on the industry, the company, and the challenge at hand. However, a basic proficiency in all four along with a particular strength in one or two, is essential to be a successful CEO.


Successful CEOs stand out for their decisiveness—being able to make decisions with speed and conviction. Take Greyhound CEO Steve Gorman. When he took over at Greyhound in 2003 it had lost $140 million over the previous two years. The parent company was coming out of bankruptcy and creditors were severely curtailing investment. Gorman knew that Greyhound risked liquidation; the stakes couldn’t be higher. After spending some time getting to know the business, Gorman realized that Greyhound had too many unprofitable routes in areas with low population density. He decided, “We cannot have miles where there are no lights.” He made the decision to reshape the company’s routes around high-yield regional networks and committed totally to this vision. Gorman knew that a bad decision was better than no decision at all. When he left Greyhound in 2007 the company reported $30 million in earnings and went on to be sold for more than four times its 2003 value.

To build up your decision-making muscles focus on making faster and fewer decisions, and practice getting better each time.

Faster decisions

Successful CEOs make decisions quickly, and they do so by following two key principles. First, they make the complex simple by focusing on what drives value in the business, job, or team. Second, they actively involve a lot of people in the decision-making process, to improve the quality of the decision and to build buy-in by the relevant stakeholders. But, they know that while everyone has a voice not everyone has a vote! Get input as part of the process but don’t wait for consensus before making a decision.

Fewer decisions

Successful CEOs recognize that they should step back from the vast majority of decisions that can be made by employees—which is easier to do if everyone understands the business framework. For example, as CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Madeline Bell was drawn into the contentious issue of whether it would be better to use gel or foam in the hospital’s hundreds of soap dispensers. The issue had the potential to polarize the staff and set a precedent for top-down decision-making. Bell decided that she didn’t have the experience to make this decision, so she told the leaders of the debate to look down the chain of command, not up—look to the people closest to the day-to-day operations to make the decision. Bell knew that she shouldn’t get mired in an issue like this, when others in the organization had the expertise needed.

Ask a series of questions to triage the decision-making. Can this wait a week or a month without causing harm? Not everything needs an immediate decision. Will waiting bring more information that will help to make the decision? Or, will the delay bring no new insights? And, could the issue actually resolve itself?


A decisive leader recognizes that there is no point in striving for perfection. It is better to move forward and continually improve, rather than agonize over every decision. Successful CEOs learn to take mistakes in stride, take ownership, and move on. They don’t talk about “failure” but about inevitable mistakes that are the necessary scars of battle. They also realize that some emotional distance is necessary to be able to learn from those mistakes.

One side effect of making mistakes is learning how to apologize. An effective apology should be personal, focused, and genuine. Don’t make excuses and be sure to act quickly. Get all the facts out, admit what went wrong, and clearly articulate what needs to be done, including a plan to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again. Finally, reach out to diverse sources of information, to ensure you aren’t acting on personal bias in making decisions.

Engage for impact

Being decisive is the first step, but you also have to get the organization to act on your decision. This means being able to engage with others in a way that drives results.

CEOs have to engage with a vast range of stakeholders, often with divergent views and needs—customers, employees, shareholders, retirees, the media. Being likeable is an important quality for getting hired as a CEO, but it’s not enough to be an effective CEO. Being too nice can backfire if you hesitate to make the tough calls. Rather, the key is to engage with others for impact, rather than affinity. This means understanding others’ needs without pandering to them.

Engaging for impact is like being an orchestra conductor. Like a CEO, the conductor is totally dependent on others to deliver results. S/he sets the musical vision, gets the players to accept that vision, and establishes the pulse for the group to perform the vision.

Lead with intent

A great CEO can get everyone behind the vision, from the janitor to the largest customer, explaining to each individual why their role is critical to success. People need to know where you’re taking them and why. This means you have to be able to articulate the vision clearly to yourself; then carry out the intent of that vision in even the smallest action, decision, or interaction.

Recall the overbook United Airlines flight in April 2017, when a doctor was physically dragged off the plane by a security officer? It was a nightmare scenario for United, captured in numerous cell phone videos that quickly went viral. The attendant just wanted to avoid further delays; the security officer just wanted to respond to the call for help from the attendant; the company’s management just wanted to support the employees and save face. Everyone was reacting under transactional pressure—but none of these reactions served the aspirational intent of the company’s professed commitment to customer service.

When transactional intent fails to meet aspirational intent, the result is always costly.

Understand the players

The CEO has to be able to understand the stakeholders to get them to rally behind her decisions—going back to the orchestra metaphor, the conductor has to translate the score effectively for both the percussionist and the violinist. This means understanding exactly who the stakeholders are and what they want. The best way to do this is to develop the technique of ‘perspective getting,’ finding out what people think and feel.

Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, used the power of perspective getting to build a $5 billion business. Intuit teams regularly spend a day watching their customers work, in order to understand the pains and problems that they encounter.

Perspective getting is critical, whether you are bringing a new product to market, winning over a board, or motivating a team to complete a project. Mentoring others is one good way to learn perspective getting—you have to understand the other person’s needs to be able to mentor successfully.

Build routines

Regular rehearsals are the groundwork for an orchestral performance—similarly, leading effectively across the entire organization requires everyday habits and routines that build relationships with the stakeholders and translate those relationships into results.

Repeat the message, frequently, in numerous ways. Encourage people to open up and share critical information. Get out of your office and meet key stakeholders on their own turf. Former Starbucks CEO Jim Donald says he spent up to half of his time in the field, which meant he often heard about issues before his executives did.

Relentless reliability

The key attribute to develop as a CEO is reliability. CEOs known for their reliability are fifteen times more likely to be high performing; and, candidates who are reliable are twice as likely to be hired for the job. Customers, board members, and staff all assume that a reliable leader will get things done. The trademarks of reliability are personal consistency, setting realistic expectations, practicing personal accountability, and embedding consistency into the organization. 

Personal consistency means not waiting until the last minute to get things done; not keeping people guessing about what your next project will be; and not over-reacting to every situation. It means creating clear expectations, so that your team can anticipate what your questions are likely to be. It means being on time for meetings, phone calls, and planes. It means making individual commitments clear in meetings; making lists and putting them into action; and being aware of your mood and how it affects your interactions with your teams.

Reliable leaders not only actively shape expectations for themselves and their teams, they also watch for signs of implicit expectations coming into play. This is something that can apply throughout your career. When handed a project don’t just say, “OK, I’ll start on that;” instead say, “Here’s what I’m going to deliver by when” (and make sure you follow through).

Practicing personal accountability—holding yourself to the highest standards—gives you the right to hold others accountable.

Reliable organizations

Finally, to embed consistency across your organization, take some insights from the kinds of organizations where reliability is literally a matter of life and death. In high risk workplaces like oil rigs, aircraft carriers, and nuclear reactors it is critical to recognize that a minor slip-up is an opportunity to prevent a major accident. Madeline Bell recognized this at CHOP: instead of criticizing staff who reported near misses, such as almost giving a patient the wrong dosage of medication, Bell destigmatized mistakes by calling them good catches. The hospital even offers an annual Good Catch of the Year Award. Three years after implementing this program, serious safety events had decreased by 80%.

Create the expectations that everyone in the organization is responsible for calling out problems and identifying solutions. A great CEO is someone who empowers all employees to raise their voices, and who stays close enough to the field to listen. A shared vocabulary, where everyone describes particular terms the same way and acts accordingly, is also important, along with consistent processes. Indeed, successful CEOs tend to have excellent organization and planning skills. A clear checklist can ensure that the routine stuff is always handled, freeing people to spend more time thinking about more complex issues.

Adapting boldly

Adaptation is the key to corporate survival. Firms like Blockbuster and Kodak, that failed to adapt, paid the price. To be a successful CEO you have to learn how to navigate the uncharted, to turn the endless uncertainty the organization will face into opportunity and growth. This means letting go of the past—acknowledging that you are not going to win every time—and building your antenna for the future.

To build your adaptable and resilient mindset, start by taking on novelty, something that is outside your usual experience and that makes you uncomfortable. This could be a big commitment, like spending a year backpacking through China; or a small step, like learning to play an instrument or developing a new hobby. Developing an adaptable mindset also means being willing to make lateral, unconventional, and even risky career moves to broaden your experience or leadership skills.

Being adaptable also means being willing to let go of approaches that may have been successful in the past—past company strategies, prior business models, or your own personal habits. This last one, the personal habits, can be the hardest to let go, but…



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