The Five Qualities Every CEO Must Have Today

In recent months, there have been a number of changes in the CEO position across agencies and media companies. There’s been more and more turnover at the top, as companies grapple with the fact that media and advertising is transforming into a technology and data business. So what does it take to be a great CEO today? The successful ones seem to have a number of qualities in common, including:

They own their product. As digital becomes the business rather than just a part of it, it is essential for CEOs to own the apps, trading desks or other software that they are putting into market. This doesn’t mean that they design or build the things, of course, but it does mean that they should have an intimate knowledge of their products and a point of view on the most essential features.

Facebook is where it is today because Mark Zuckerberg has never lost ultimate ownership of his product, whereas MySpace became overrun by ads and lousy design. The market today is so competitive that a CEO must make product a priority.



They’re not jerks. It used to be that as long as CEOs delivered results for their company they could behave pretty much as they pleased. Companies would often turn a blind eye to loutish behavior. But with the advent of blogs and social media --not to mention lawsuits -- it’s more difficult to be a jerk and get away with it.

Carol Bartz’ run at Yahoo was brief and ignominious, in part because the foul-mouthed CEO seemed to go out of her way to antagonize the people around her. This is in contrast to Tim Armstong, the CEO of AOL, who was recently rewarded with a renewal of his contract through 2016. Like Bartz, Armstong is challenged with turning around an aging portal. But one difference is that people generally want Armstong to succeed, and that matters.

They attract and retain the best talent. "I am the CEO and talent is the single most important thing that I do. We spent $25 million on new talent last year -- and I was involved in 95% of those hires,” said Miles Nadal, CEO of agency holding company MDC partners, at the 4As conference last year. The agency business relies on having the very best people to solve complex marketing problems. Without them, agencies lose clients, revenue and momentum.

When she was president of JWT, Rosemarie Ryan recruited Ty Montague and the pair went on to have a great run. At Facebook, Zuckerberg recruited Sheryl Sandberg and the online ad sales juggernaut was born. If leaders are to be successful, they must be able to build a great team.

They get deals done. The one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is that a CEO must be able to close big deals. It doesn’t mean that a CEO has to be a slick salesperson, but she has to be able to articulate why her product matters and why someone should buy it. CEOs that can’t get deals done are not long for this world.

They understand social media. While getting the CEO position doesn’t require a Twitter account, that time may not be far off. After all, who wants to hire someone to lead a media company who can’t generate at least a modest following online? Social media firm BRANDfog recently released a study that showed that 82% of employees trust a company more when the CEO uses social media.

The rules for CEOs have changed, and the role is more demanding than ever. What are some of the other skills that these executives should have?

4 comments about "The Five Qualities Every CEO Must Have Today".
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  1. Lana McGilvray from blast! PR, April 9, 2012 at 10:45 a.m.

    I like this list a lot. I've worked directly for a half dozen CEOs in my career. I am now working with dozens more. I always gain from the relationships but often laugh that it takes a special kind to be CEO and a special kind to work directly for a CEO. On the jerk comment...I am torn. Jerk is so subjective. I have found that CEOs can be difficult and brutally honest, just like the best sports coaches. Many don't mince words. Sometimes, that is interpreted as jerk-like behavior. Sometimes it is admired as necessary. I am not endorsing jerk behavior. In fact, I have a client that I admire a lot that has so much business that they currently employ a no jerk client policy! I also like the BRANDfog mention here. BRANDFog is a smart social media firm with strong leadership and amazing clients. I believe they will help bring up the next gen of CEOs and leaders.

  2. Ira Kalb from Kalb & Associates, April 9, 2012 at 2:34 p.m.

    You provide a good list. I am wondering, however, where you would put Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Mark Hurd on the list? Many that worked with, or for, them thought thought they were “jerks”, but by most standards, they are considered successful. There are different paths that people can take to success, and as Lana says in the comment above, the term is rather subjective. Being a CEO is a tough job that can easily bring out the “jerk” in all of us.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 9, 2012 at 3:07 p.m.

    Can you send this out to every company just a reminder ?

  4. Matt Straz from Namely, April 9, 2012 at 4:10 p.m.

    Thanks for the comments!

    Agree that the jerk factor is subjective. That said, there are differences between being demanding vs. abusive and, in some cases, breaking the law.

    Of the three execs mentioned, Jobs has passed on, Ellison remains CEO and Hurd was deposed as CEO by HP (later hired by Ellison).

    The next generation of CEOs seem to be comporting themselves somewhat differently.

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