Study Shows ‘Self-Reflection’ Can Be CEO’s Success Mantra


A Chief Executive Officer or CEO’s capacity to grow and evolve is as critical to success as is meeting financial targets, especially in today’s business landscape that’s marked by technology disruption, economic volatility, extended pressure from internal and external stakeholders, and a general lack of trust in leadership. Clearly, the role of a CEO is more challenging—and more scrutinized— than it’s ever been.

A recent global survey by Swiss executive search firm Egon Zehnder shows that most CEO appointments are not part of a planned and formal succession process. More than half the CEOs (57%) said they had difficulty finding time for themselves and for reflection while 55% respondents said developing their senior leadership team was more or much more difficult than anticipated. The survey – ‘The CEO: A Personal Reflection,’ conducted among 402 chief executives globally, including 44 in India explores the human side of being a CEO and comes up with some very interesting findings. [Read the full report here

According to the study, CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies reveal they struggle most with the human demands of the role. While CEOs feel confident in their experience and operational know-how when they reach the position, they recognize the need to transform themselves in order to keep up with the pace of disruption to business.

“In today’s complex and volatile world, CEOs must have both the hard and soft skills. The very best leaders are on a continuous journey of learning and transforming themselves while also transforming their businesses,” noted Dick Patton, Global CEO Practice Group Leader, Egon Zehnder.

A majority of CEOs feel they have the hard skills and professional experience to step up to the role, but found certain personal aspects of the role more challenging than expected, the study says, 74% of CEOs said their prior achievements and experience prepared them to be CEOs, however: 47% of respondents said that developing their senior leadership team was more difficult than anticipated.

Half of the respondents said driving culture change was more difficult than they’d thought. 48% of respondents said that finding time for themselves and for self-reflection was more difficult than expected. With hindsight, only 32% felt fully prepared. Moreover, 54% of CEOs agreed that transitioning into the role required an intense period of personal reflection. 79% of CEOs recognized they needed the capacity to transform themselves as well as their business. Only 57% of CEOs said they were comfortable showing emotions. 78% of CEOs said they were comfortable admitting mistakes.

Many CEOs felt they lacked some necessary supports before making the step up. Some believe that the succession process needs work. In particular, CEOs appointed from within a company tend to feel less prepared compared with those hired from outside. For example, the study shows 44% of the CEOs surveyed said that their appointment was not part of a planned and formal succession process. For externally promoted CEOs that was 54%; For internally promoted CEOs that was 36%.

Only 28% of internally-selected CEOs said they felt fully prepared vs 38% of external hires. Nearly two-thirds or 65% of respondents said there was some succession planning underway for their own successors, but only 32% of them said that there was currently a clear process in place. Only 38% of respondents said they turned to their Chairman for honest feedback, and only 28% turn to their Board.

Rajeev Vasudeva, Chief Executive Officer of Egon Zehnder, added “An organization is only as successful as its leader’s ability to manage a multitude of short- and long-term priorities. What’s required is their human side of leadership: a CEO who embraces humility and vulnerability and who remains open to feedback, self-discovery and continuous learning. This ability to self-transform is the key to transforming their organizations as well.”

While CEOs have been studied and surveyed many times, past projects have not focused on the human side of the CEO. Also very few did focus on the critical elements of preparation and adaptation, believe the author of the report. Recognizing the importance of these soft skills and their need to adapt and change, today’s CEO is moving toward a more reflective and collaborative approach to leadership.

Leave a Response