How to Think Like a CEO: The 10X Impact One Mindset Shift Can Make

July 3 , 2019 •  6 minute read • by Saeed


“A flower does not think to compete with the flower next to it. It just blooms.” 

—Zen Shin

I know. It’s tough to be an employee.

But what if the company was yours? What would you do? How would you behave? What would you think about? What would you start paying attention to? What would keep you up at night?

I was recently invited to speak on leadership at an event. Before the talk, I watched as my clients were working with the venue staff in last minute preparations. They asked for some simple syrup to go with the ice tea. Simple syrup. Simple request.

For the uninitiated, if you’ve never heard of simple syrup (that would be me), allow me to explain. Simple syrup is basically sugar dissolved in water. The solution is heated in a pot to fully dissolve the crystals and then cooled before using and/or storing. It’s actually better than just adding sugar to your ice tea because it dissolves more easily.

Much to their disappointment however, my clients were told there was no simple syrup in the building and there was no time to make any.

During this exchange, I began to notice one of the waiters who was working in the background setting up the room listening intently to the conversation. He suddenly disappeared into the kitchen for what seemed like a long time. After about 20 minutes or so, he emerged with a tray of freshly made simple syrup and a look of serious pride on his face. We were all amazed and naturally pleased. He was all smiles as he described how, well, simple it is to make simple syrup.

I knew I had just watched an act of leadership that would probably go unnoticed. So I made sure it didn’t. During my talk, I told the simple syrup story to the rest of the group who had by now arrived and had no idea that the sweetener for their ice tea was the result of a simple act of leadership. The group applauded his efforts and I am sure it made his day just as he had made ours.

This is the CEO mindset in action – enterprise wide thinking that puts the customer first. The 10x impact one mindset shift can make was on full display that day and its impact still reverberates.

The CEO Mindset

If we could see inside the mind of a successful CEO, we might discover many things. Here are the 10 most important modalities of the CEO mindset + one more that wraps around all others which I will mention in the final word.

  1. They are self-aware. Everything in life starts with self-awareness. Successful CEOs have a highly developed and functioning awareness of themselves, their situation and those of their numerous stakeholders. They are also well aware of their own thinking and how they learn (meta-cognition). Everything, everywhere, at all times starts with self-awareness.
  2. They have vision. Successful CEOs have a vision. They set goals and keep score to track progress always anchored in that vision. It may seem like stating the obvious but unless you know where you are going, it’s hard to get there. But many people, work without a vision or a destination in mind. The result is they go around in circles.
  3. They are focused. Along with a clear vision of where the organization is going, they maintain a keen focus on what is at stake. They harness the attention and focus of the entire organization in the same direction. Leadership is about focusing the entire group’s attention on what’s wildly important. Successful CEOs know this and are good at harnessing attention.
  4. They communicate early and often. They are excellent communicators that seek to understand others by asking probing questions. They listen genuinely for the responses and act on the input they receive. They also know that months or years of good work and team building can be destroyed by a few careless words. Inspirational pep talks have a lifespan of about 30 minutes. They are like showers – you need to take one every day. Cruel words, however, echo for ages. Successful CEOs mind their manners and theirwords.
  5. They value relationships. They seek to build consensus and are relationship builders who can foster cooperation and support when faced with conflict. They don’t burn bridges recognizing that the same people they met on the way up could be the same people they meet on the way down. They leverage their network to achieve their goals but they also know how to give value to the people that surround them. They take care of people first.
  6. They don’t blame. Successful CEOs are able to hold themselves and others accountable without blame. When things go wrong, they face failures and negative events head-on. They take responsibility instead of shifting blame despite the possible consequences. When all is said and done, they own their mistakes, learn from them and move on. No collateral damage.
  7. They think continuous improvement. They continually look to understand, correct and improve and they adjust their thinking based on qualitative and quantitative data they intentionally collect to achieve better results. Critical to this is the confidence that improvement is possible and the understanding that without improvement competitors will triumph. They have a learning mindset and create learning organizations and environments.
  8. They think Return on Investment: They know what their time is worth. They review schedules, meetings, and tasks and consider if they are generating a true return on their time and effort. For those that are not, they might reduce or modify them to get more “return”. Successful CEOs manage and protect their time like a precious commodity. They know their self-worth and exhibit it in all their behaviors.
  9. They see opportunities; not obstacles. They realize that there’s positive power in seeing problems as opportunities. The best CEOs always think in terms of opportunities and have zero tolerance for complaining. It takes practice to adopt a CEO mindset and it’s easy to spot when someone doesn’t have it – that mindset or lack thereof is almost always directly proportional to how much people complain. Successful CEOs see everything as a problem that needs a solution and an opportunity to improve.
  10. They think big. Lastly, successful CEOs think out of the box and think big. Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook would not be the companies they are today with small thinking. You are the best judge of your ability to think big. By exposing yourself to the right people and incrementally challenging yourself both vertically (accepting responsibilities above your position) and laterally (increasing the number of responsibilities within your position), your capacity to “think big” will grow.

A Final Word

There is one final mindset shift that can not be overlooked and encompasses all others. Successful CEOs maintain a positive mental attitude even in the face of adversity. They know that they must set a positive tone for their companies because without the influence of a strong leader, organizations succumb to negative mental inertia. The CEO must always be injecting a positive mental attitude into the enterprise. So should you.

True transformation requires a mindset shift. As organizations begin to grapple with more volatile times, higher demands are placed on everyone to exhibit CEO level leadership – not just those with the title. Not only do we have to do away with the idea of a single leader in charge because our volatile times demand it, but we have to do away with this idea because our own success demands it.

Successful CEOs think differently than individual contributors. It’s a CEO’s thinking, training and instincts that drive their actions and decisions. You don’t need to be a CEO to think like one however – thinking like a CEO is a mindset shift that you can adopt and that will help you become more successful no matter what you do. We can learn to remodel our personal skills and abilities into CEO level competencies if we learn to think like a CEO. If we do, we can make a major change in the way business gets done across the board. The result is that the entire organization benefits.

Think about the good leaders for which you have worked. Aren’t they usually the first ones in the office and the last ones to head home? Aren’t they the people who attack a problem head on, solve it and learn from it? Aren’t they the ones with the positive outlook?

Thinking like a CEO requires a significant mindset shift. How do you do that with something as intangible as mindset or thinking?

It’s as simple as simple syrup.

Good luck.

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©2019 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A., CPCC

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