Thoughts for Thanksgiving: Meaning over Money
Opening of Dreamforce 2010

Wisdom and Insights from High-Level CEOs

Last week I had the privilege of attending the CEO2CEO conference, organized by Chief Executive magazine, at the New York Stock Exchange. I had the good fortune to meet some of the most interesting CEOs of our times. As always, I picked up more ideas during the informal conversations at our table and during the breaks. Here are a few nuggets:

Insecurity: One of a Good Leader’s Driving Forces

Most good leaders grew up in modest circumstances. Despite a good work ethic, they often carry a feeling of insecurity that they might not succeed. One CEO boiled it down: “[CEOs] need to have an asset and a slight defect. The asset is wanting to do well, be independent, take risks, and pursue a bold vision. The defect is to be always afraid of failure.”

Another CEO said, “I believe that many entrepreneurs have an inferiority complex. When you get to know them and get to the core of who they are, they are very insecure. This is the exact opposite of what they portray in public. The insecurity and fear of failure drive them to work harder.”

Bob Nardelli, the CEO of Cerberus Capital who has 50 CEOs reporting to him (their aggregate sales are more than $50 billion) said it best: “Many entrepreneurs who come from modest or meager backgrounds feel the need to demonstrate their worth. They didn't go to an Ivy League school but can be just as competitive and successful. They always feel that they have to prove themselves. Unfortunately, when you look at the children of these successful entrepreneurs, you don't find that street-fighter instinct because they had a better life. My dad served in WWII in the military. My parents were not financially well off. My parents worked their butts off, and I have one brother, and our parents were dedicated to their two boys. We had a very modest upbringing and responsibilities at a very early age and duties in the house, and we learned good values and appreciation of financials and work ethic.”

The Capacity to Learn and Improve

What struck me as curious was how many CEOs at the event were not using technology to capture ideas. There was not a single laptop in the room. I noticed a few iPads and plenty of smart phones. In fact, many CEOs had two or three in front of them, monitoring their business in real time on their BlackBerrys. One CEO said that success depends on our ability to learn: “Whether it was in sports or in school, we learned that we all have an infinite capacity to do better than we are now.” Another CEO commented, “I believe there is also the value of experience that differentiates the level of understanding. Our role is to leverage wisdom and liberally share what we know.”

The Ability to Read the Map and Connect the Dots

Successful leaders seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to reading the shifts in the market. They recognize patterns, and they talk about them. But the most interesting comment about reading the market was from one CEO: “Most people see the dots on the map, but they are not able to connect them.” 

The Realization That Each Day Offers Opportunities

One CEO said, “Each day we are exposed to a thousand learning opportunities. For example, this morning I saw an article in the WSJ on how to lay out stores to enhance the shopping experience. I sent that article to one of my companies in the UK. I always try to absorb what's around me. And I always ask myself if there is any application that could be beneficial to me or my companies. As I go around to these companies, I naturally share the best practices that I have discovered in other companies I've visited.”

Another CEO agreed with the idea of “cross-fertilizing” ideas across the enterprise and added, “If you want to succeed in life, you have to be just as good with learning as with unlearning. Many people just learn what's new and talk about it, but they continue to execute on practices or processes that have become obsolete.” When I heard that insight, I could not help commenting on the fact that the CEO who shared it carried a hardbound notebook and used a fountain pen to record his thoughts and insights. When I shared my observation with him, he responded, “This may look old-fashioned to you, but I get pleasure and satisfaction from writing things down with a fountain pen, and this notebook helps me think and keep things in one place, where I can find them quickly. If I did this on a notebook computer, I would not have instant access to my idea library. This book doesn’t need to be plugged in, and I don’t have to wait for it to boot up. It’s instant.”

What CEOs Worry About

A number of CEOs were optimistic about the economy, saying that October and November were good months but the market doesn’t feel it yet. We are still held captive by a climate of uncertainty, which holds us back from making important decisions. Many people are waiting to see how things will play out. A lobbyist said, “We spend a lot of time explaining to the lawmakers what the consequences of their decisions are on business. We need to spend more time educating leaders in government how they can help improve the economy.”

There was a consensus that CEOs need to take risks and companies that are hiding in their foxholes are not going to succeed. Said one CEO, “We need to invest more in data infrastructure. We need to be more strategic and more focused on changing the culture, and we need to think more about the world at large and how it may influence our business.” Here is the collective CEO “worry list” that could impact business and prevent business-expansion plans:

1.    Iraq creating nuclear weapons
2.    the drug war in Mexico
3.    terrorism
4.    China’s growing influence and transformation from simple manufacturing to innovating and creating new products
5.    the war in Afghanistan
6.    the expansion of Brazil
7.    the awakening power of Russia
8.    the weakening of the US presidency

One CEO said, “Take any time in the history of our country: Our world has always appeared uncertain and unstable. That’s a generic sense of insecurity. What we need to do is to recognize the uncertainties as the noise on the sidelines; we need to make decisions on how to improve our game. That’s what we’re here for, that’s what we’re paid for. We can’t afford to allow uncertainty to take away our vision, resolve, or capacity to make the right decisions that create greater value for our shareholders. The two biggest challenges to success are complacency and uncertainty. We need to awaken our aspirational DNA.”

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Account Deleted

I like your blog regarding CEO. You have nicely describe their work ethics and their difficulties. Thanks for sharing this informative post.



Very instructive post. It's worth noting that leaders confirm adversity and uncertainty as opportunities to learn and grow. When things are going well, business' tend to get lazy, complacent and trust too much in past success.

I also find interesting the idea of discerning the "noise of the sidelines" from real threats to a business. I would agree that this distinction is imperative but I would also add that while some issues may be mostly hype and not real business issues, it's no less important to assuage the public at times in order to pacify their fears.

Thanks for sharing!

Don F Perkins

Rachel Brown

An excellent read, thanks for sharing :0)

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