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What Every CEO Needs

What Every CEO Needs

Photograph by Richard Baker/In Pictures/Corbis

It is easy (and largely true) to say that chief executive officers are pampered and lavishly overpaid. There are also many company presidents that gut it out every day earning a decidedly non-Trump-like salary. Notwithstanding the privileged perch—and the trappings that go with the job—leaders are deprived of some important ingredients they desperately need. In my conversations with corporate chiefs, I see five things nearly every CEO could use more of.


Healthy companies thrive on debate. CEOs, their shareholders, and their customers need the solid decision-making that’s possible only when people arm-wrestle over important items. Suggestion: Don’t put a business issue to bed until the team has debated it at the appropriate level of depth. (If the team won’t rise to the challenge, get each team member alone and say, “This conversation will serve as your quarterly review. What should we do about X?”)

Honest Feedback

CEOs who aren’t told when they’re off base or fully delusional don’t prosper. Neither do their lieutenants who clam up rather than say, “Your majesty, your outfit is about as threadbare as they come.” Suggestion: Ask your reports in regular one-on-one settings, “What do I need to do differently?” Don’t take “Nothing” for an answer.

Devil’s Advocacy

During the first, horrified staff meeting after every business fiasco, someone will ask, “Why didn’t we think of [the problem that torpedoed us]?” Then someone will respond: “That issue briefly emerged at one point in the discussion, but we didn’t delve into it.” Groupthink is a happy state where people rush around in the ecstasy of agreement while reality-based decision-making seeps out through the floorboards. Suggestion: at every meeting, ask, “What aren’t we thinking of? What could go wrong?” until folks start talking about risks and threats without being prompted.

Differing Perspectives

A manufacturing CEO once told me, “I could benefit greatly from my directors’ views on strategy, if each of my reports wasn’t so focused on how company moves affect his department.” A manager’s mission is not to safeguard the interests of his or her department but to help lead the organization from a function-specific vantage point. To get that elevated perspective, you first have to get out of the weeds.

Benefit of the Doubt

A newly appointed CEO needs the benefit of the doubt from team members as she or he navigates today’s insanely competitive and volatile business terrain. It’s not that middle managers should shut up and get with the program. Once a leader has laid out the plan and committed to a vision, strategy, and culture, she or he deserves a reasonable window of time and the middle-manager support to realize that vision. What does it take to get that support? Forthrightness and ethical behavior on the CEO’s part, for sure, but also the ability to say, “I can’t accomplish this mission without you guys; I really need your help” and mean it. And prove it.

A CEO who can earn the team’s trust will have no problem getting these five daily things she or he needs to lead.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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