BBC Capital

Secrets of the world’s top CEOs

  • What CEOs know

    What separates a mediocre leader from a great one? The BBC set out to learn how top CEOs worked their way to the top, and to discover the personality traits and tricks they honed on their way up. For its in-depth video series, CEO Guru, BBC spoke to executives from all corners of the world, including Walter Robb, the co-chief executive of US grocery chain Whole Foods, and Rupert Soames, CEO of UK energy supplier Aggreko. What emerged was a fascinating insight into the practices of some of the world’s most-successful business leaders. (Thinkstock)

  • Know when to think like the Chinese

    American executives are notoriously short-sighted when it comes to their business performance expectations, said Steve Tappin, host of BBC’s CEO Guru series. To their companies’ detriment, US CEOs often focus on driving growth in the short term to appease current shareholders. That overemphasis on quarterly performance can sacrifice long-term growth.

    By contrast, Chinese executives are not afraid to have huge, long-term ambitions. “They’ve a big vision in the distance,” Tappin said. They set up their companies for decades of success by focusing on goals and achievements as far out as 30 to 100 years.

    This strategy is not without detractors. Some point out that the rapidly changing business climate makes it difficult (if not impossible) to think so long-term. But fast change and big vision aren’t mutually exclusive — as long as CEOs think beyond rigid quarterly deadlines to focus on reacting dynamically with market changes.

    See the full story here. (Thinkstock)

  • Don’t allow employees to think of work as ‘just a job’

    As companies get bigger, it becomes more difficult to maintain a professionally fulfilling work environment for employees. But business expansion need not come at the expense of employee passion. As Whole Foods co-chief executive Walter Robb said, “I think our job as leaders, particularly as the company gets larger, is to make sure that holding vessel is vibrant and alive.”

    How do CEOs do that? First, don’t shy away from handing responsibility over to subordinates. “When leaders give power away to others, they create space for those people to flourish,” Robb said.

    Second, realise that management has a huge influence on company morale. “People pay much more attention to the perceived behaviour of their colleagues and of their boss than they do to management propaganda,” said Rupert Soames, CEO of energy supplier Aggreko.

    For more on what other executives, including Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Allan Zeman had to say on this topic, see the full story. (Thinkstock)

  • Embrace the division of power

    High-powered executives are often unwilling to share their power, but that sort of thinking can seriously cripple a company. The danger is particularly acute for firms that are expanding.

    Grocery conglomerate Whole Foods has embraced the concept of sharing power at the top. In 2010, Walter Robb joined founder John Mackey in the chief executive position. What are the keys to a successful partnership? A shared vision, similar experience and the same values, Robb said. It’s also important for the head office to delegate some decisions to the regional hubs, he added.

    Ultimately you're distributing the intelligence and the decision making and the responsibility to the places where the business is actually occurring," he said. Other CEOs also weighed in on this topic – see what they had to say here. (Thinkstock)

  • Learn to see quick failure as a positive

    As companies grow, innovation often slows down — but it doesn’t have to be that way.

    General Electric, for one, adopted an idea proposed by Lean Start-Up author Eric Reis in which the US conglomerate began pushing out some products quickly to market, even when they weren’t perfect. This radical “minimally viable product” approach allowed the company to get almost-immediate feedback. When the feedback was negative, the company was able to change course rapidly.

    “Failing quickly is actually not that bad,” says CEO Jeff Immelt, a 31-year veteran of General Electric. “Failing slowly is deadly.”

    Aberdeen Asset Management chief executive Martin Gilbert, among others, also weighed in on this topic – see what he and others had to say. (Thinkstock)

  • Keep fit physically to stay sane mentally

    Is it utter madness to keep a president waiting because you are finishing your daily exercises? Not in the eyes of Allan Zeman of the business development firm Lan Kwai Fong Group. Fong exercises “religiously” for 90 minutes every day, and says this steadfast routine keeps him sharp in the gymnasium and in the boardroom. Neglecting your physical fitness, Zeman says, means “you’ll burn out and burn out quickly.”

    It also pays to think like a sporting star. “The CEO is a very daunting task,” says Joseph Chen, founder and chief executive of Chinese social networking site Renren. By employing the same mentality as a long-distance runner — conserving energy when possible and paying attention to the tempo of work — CEOs can, ultimately, win the working race.

    See what Frits van Paasschen, chief executive of Starwood Hotels, advises his peers to surround themselves with. (Thinkstock)

  • Know when – and how – to take a hard line

    Top executives shouldn’t shy away from calling in reinforcement when making key decisions.

    “We are largely consensus-driven,” said Aberdeen Asset Management’s Gilbert. “For me to go out and try and do something without taking my people with me would be suicidal."

    But CEOs are the end of the line when it comes to tough decisions. They need to know when – and how – to be firm.

    “Ruthlessness is an important part of business,” said Gerry Grimstone, chairman of Standard Life. "But my very strong advice is this should always be done with some consultation… Ruthlessness where you literally have your blood on the carpet afterwards just leaves an unpleasant mess that you have to clean up."

    See what the CEO of travel group Thomas Cook, Harriet Green, has to say about the value of both soft and hard negotiation skills.