McKinsey’s eight lessons in leadership for aspiring CEOs

McKinsey has offered eight leadership lessons for aspiring CEOs. Picture: McKinsey & Company
The McKinsey Leadership Forum convenes an elite group of C-suite executives to tackle the big questions facing those near the summit of their organisations

The question every aspiring leader desperately wants to answer: what does it take to become a CEO?

Of course, there is no exact science. If everybody had the necessary capabilities, the path to the top would be somewhat overcrowded and workplace culture would surely suffer. 

However, every year, the McKinsey Leadership Forum convenes an elite group of C-suite executives in an attempt to tackle this and a host of other big questions facing those near the summit of their organisations.

Since 2006, more than 300 leadership figures have attended the forum, with 88 participants going on to become CEOs.

Below, McKinsey & Company offers up eight key lessons it has gleaned over the past 17 years. 

1. You’re never ready 

Almost every CEO to participate in the forum tells McKinsey they thought they were well-equipped for the job given their experience – only to realise the job required expertise they had never developed. 

For example, a leader with a strong operating background was challenged to run enterprise-wide initiatives, while an expert in strategy with little previous exposure to directors found himself learning the intricacies of engaging the board as his key partner. 

McKinsey reveals that, during forum sessions, participants have found it helpful to measure readiness against the six key elements of a CEO’s job:

  • Setting the direction
  • Aligning the organisation
  • Mobilising through leaders
  • Engaging the board
  • Connecting with stakeholders
  • Managing personal effectiveness
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2. Develop insight and edge from a diverse ‘kitchen cabinet’

McKinsey advises budding leaders to seek expert, unvarnished intel about themselves from across the organisation, asserting that these insights will prove central to success. 

“I always believed in business that you should have an environment where people can tell you the good and the bad,” said one CEO who participated in the forum. “You have to want to know it all.”

Moreover, McKinsey’s report says that, to stay abreast of a business environment where external pressures are constant and constantly changing, leaders ultimately need better insight from a diverse range of people. 

3. Ready your value creation thesis

The recommendation from McKinsey is that rising CEOs must offer a clear and detailed vision of how they will transform the company they hope to lead. 

They must specify a handful of decisive moves they will make to execute that vision and show, whatever their experience, that they can create value across the entire company.

4. Act like a CHRO

Success as a CEO will ultimately depend on deploying the right talent against the most important initiatives, says McKinsey. 

In fact, many bosses have told forum participants that their only regret was not acting faster on talent changes.

“Any leader preparing to be CEO should be ready to clearly define the highest-value roles and to know who should be in them,” adds McKinsey’s report. 

5. Do what only you can do

One of the most profound changes seen by McKinsey & Co at its forums over the years is the leadership model adopted by most leaders.

In the early days, for example, it was common to find rising CEOs who believed they could lead using a traditional ‘command and control’ method. 

However, McKinsey reports that this has been replaced by models which see the CEO serve as an ‘enabler-in-chief’. These newer models recognise that doing everything is both ineffective and impossible. 

6. Move from a private to public persona

Rising CEOs of today know they are the link between the inside of the company and the outside, according to McKinsey. They are prepared to deal with a greatly-expanded range of stakeholders, including customers, employees, the media, regulatory agencies, unions, supplies and shareholders, to name a few. 

“What they are less prepared for,” says the report, “is that, in today’s world of social media, every word they say while interacting with these stakeholders will be scrutinised.

“Being prepared with a consistent, credible strategy on sustainability is a requirement for today’s new CEOs.”

7. Manage your personal energy

Lesson seven for rising CEOs is that they should be prepared to figure out a unique model for “safeguarding, developing and tapping into their personal energy”.

Leaders who contribute to the forum employ a variety of techniques to do this. Some reserve two hours for pure thinking in the middle of the day or schedule their most important meetings for the morning. Others enjoy hobbies that are all-consuming but profoundly different from their CEO responsibilities.

What’s crucial to understand is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach on this front. 

8. Committing to preparation is the rewarding first step

McKinsey concludes that actually committing to a rigorous CEO preparation process is a rewarding developmental journey.

“The process is a deeply personal and challenging experience that asks a lot of candidates across several dimensions,” the report adds. 

“It is a science, a methodology with a clear set of stepping stones. Engaging fully improves the likelihood of a candidate’s success.”


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