April 6th, 2023

The CEO role is one of the most sought-after positions in the business world. It comes with prestige, power, and a chance to make a significant impact on a company and society. The position represents the pinnacle of success in the corporate world, and CEOs are often viewed as visionaries who can steer their companies through challenging times while simultaneously ensuring that their businesses remain profitable. But how do you get there, and what does it take to succeed in such a high-pressure role?

To explore the lessons learned from some of the world’s top CEOs, we recently interviewed Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America; Rob Brown, CEO of Lincoln International; and Tiger Tyagarajan, CEO of Genpact for our new Athena Salon series, “CEO Perspectives.” In this blog post, we dive into their insights and offer tips on how to rise to the top and succeed in the CEO role.

Make Everyone Your Mentor

According to Tiger Tyagarajan, “You learn the most from your team.” As a CEO, it’s essential to surround yourself with people who can offer different perspectives and experiences, and to remain open to learning from them. Rather than seeing yourself as the “boss” who knows everything, adopt a growth mindset that allows you to learn from everyone around you.

“I’ve always believed that whatever role you do, there are interconnected portions of the business and the company that you need to understand. Being a salesperson is not the way you rise up to the top in a bank. To rise to the top, you understand compliance, risk, regulations, and operations. I had no idea of any of those things. So I spent time with the operating team with the risk team. My colleagues in sales were shocked and thought I was wasting my time. I think it’s important not to have tunnel vision to actually figure out who can influence what you do and building those bridges is something that I deeply think about,” said Tiger.

When you make everyone your mentor, you empower your team members and build trust with them. This, in turn, creates a more collaborative and productive workplace culture. As a CEO, you should foster an environment that encourages people to share their ideas and insights freely, without fear of judgment or criticism.

Furthermore, recognize the people who have taught and influenced you, and how those experiences have shaped your personal growth and development. “The milestones come out of remembering who taught you…it’s the milestones for you, it’s not the milestones for anybody else. It’s the times in your life where you change from one thing to another,” said Brian Moynihan.

Often, change can happen so gradually that it is hard to recognize the shift unless you take time to reflect. The thrill of success can have us rushing from one achievement to the next without pause. This can lead to burnout and a lack of fulfillment. When we slow down and appreciate each step and the people around us along the way, we can make more intentional decisions about our progress and foster meaningful connections along the way.

Small Talk is the Big Talk

Small talk is often viewed as an insignificant part of communication, but it can actually be a powerful tool for building connections and fostering productive conversations. By engaging in small talk, we can establish common ground with others, demonstrate our interest in their lives and opinions, and create a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere for discussion.

“Small talk is the big talk. I think about the big deals we’ve won, it was the small talk before the pitch that allowed me to connect with the decision-maker. Our pitch wasn’t going to look that different than our competitors. It’s the same thing in business, coming into a meeting a little early and spending some time finding out what’s going on in people’s lives. When you get to the substance of what you need to talk about, you’ve already made the connection. They’re gonna listen more and you’re gonna listen more,” said Rob Brown.

But small talk isn’t just about building relationships – it can also be a way to generate new ideas and perspectives. As Tiger noted, intentionally bringing together individuals with different opinions and viewpoints can lead to more innovative and effective solutions. By engaging in debate and challenging each other’s assumptions, we can push ourselves to think outside the box and come up with truly creative solutions.

Be a Good Leader by Being a Good Person

Leadership is a complex blend of qualities that go beyond just making strategic decisions and defining goals for the future. It’s also about being a good person who can inspire and motivate others to perform their best. Brian Moynihan says, “Leadership has a lot more to do with people who are going to follow you because they see that you’re genuine. They think you’re in it for the greater good and not yourself. The minute somebody puts themselves in front, the minute it becomes about them and not about their teammates, the company, the shareholders, and communities, they’ve got to go.”

As a CEO, this entails creating a culture of trust, transparency, and accountability, where team members feel valued and respected. When your team members see that you care about them and are committed to creating a positive work environment, they will be more motivated and engaged in their work.

In order to build a strong organizational culture, it is important to focus on your people. As Rob Brown rightly suggests, a company’s culture can be the differentiator in a highly competitive industry. By prioritizing the development, engagement, and empowerment of your employees, you can create a work environment that attracts top talent and fosters long-term success. Rob emphasizes the importance of carving out time in your schedule to focus on what’s important long-term, not just what’s urgent today.

“I don’t think you can be a great human being, or a great leader, or CEO, unless you’re really humble, because how are you going to learn? How are you going to say, I want to talk to you, I know you’ve just joined the company, and you’re straight out of college, but I want to talk to you because I think you understand topic A or topic B better than I can ever dream about. It’s all interconnected. Your success is actually dependent on that humbleness,” said Tiger.

Avoid Planning Too Much

“I fundamentally believe that it’s not a good idea to plan so much, you actually rule out other possibilities,” says Tiger. He emphasizes the importance of flexibility and the ability to move in different directions. “If you actually pick and choose something that is five years away and say that’s where I want to go, you’re almost making an assumption that you know exactly what’s important five years from now, you know exactly that you’re going to love it five years from now. And I think those are too many assumptions to make,” he says.

Having a rigid plan can also be limiting, as it may prevent you from considering alternative approaches that could be more effective. By remaining open to different possibilities, you can make better decisions and ultimately achieve better outcomes.

“We have this key element of our culture called context, not control. What we’ve learned is that in a control culture or a micromanagement culture, the weakest employees will quickly leave because they won’t be able to handle it. However, it’s not just the weakest ones who leave. Your most creative people will also leave because they don’t want to be micromanaged. What’s embedded in that is, great entrepreneurial people who want to have an impact will seek context. They won’t just do what they’re told,” said Robert Brown.

And you want great entrepreneurial people on your team. Ultimately, it is the entrepreneurial mindset that drives progress and inspires individuals to pursue excellence and create a lasting impact, and organizations that embrace this philosophy will reap the rewards of a highly motivated and engaged workforce.

Advice on your path to CEO

CEO requires more than just business acumen. It’s about leadership, adaptability, and building a strong culture. Taking risks and being resilient are essential to success. “I never ever thought about what my next job was. When people asked me to do things, I tried to do a good job, and then it fell in place.” So, take the opportunities that come your way, even if they seem outside of your comfort zone. “I always tell people, take the job and make it what you want it to be, rather than not take the job and feed the fear that you don’t have all the qualifications, because you’ll probably figure out how to do it. If they’re asking you, they think you can do it. Why doubt yourself?” said Brian.

If you want expert guidance on your journey and access to more top leaders, join us at Athena Alliance and chart your path to the CEO with a community dedicated to your success.



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