Life at the top

Chief Executive Officer has become a four-letter word. These days you’d no more trust your money to many CEOs than ship lettuce by rabbit. I’ve interviewed numerous directors over the years who’ve been involved in selecting CEOs and I’ve also interviewed many of those who have been chosen for the top job.The trouble is that no one can predict with certainty how well or otherwise a new CEO will do until they’re actually in harness. As an individual moves up the corporate ladder, the rungs are all pretty equal. But the distance is vast between being number two in an organization and number one.
One of the best natural talents any leader should possess is intuition. That doesn’t mean you’re always right, and it certainly doesn’t mean that others are always wrong. The toughest part of having good instincts is learning to trust them.
The second trait of a good leader is the patience to convince others to share your view by getting them to understand and agree to your position, and then be willing to act in unison. Thirdly, a leader must have a certain rare quality. That was best expressed when CIBC bought investment banking firm Wood Gundy. Then CIBC CEO Don Fullerton wrote to John Hunkin, soon to be president of CIBC Wood Gundy, saying, “You’ve got accountants and lawyers who could do the legal and financial due diligence. I want you to do the human due diligence and what I want to know is: Do they still have a soul?”
Here are my picks for Canada’s top five CEOs. First is Bruce Flatt of Brookfield. I’ve admired Flatt ever since 9/11. He didn’t wait for calm to return or airports to reopen. That same day he hired a car and headed for Manhattan to personally supervise repairs to the company’s office properties at One Liberty Plaza. My other picks are Darren Entwistle of Telus, Tobias Lütke of Shopify, and two women: Tracy Robinson at CNR and Linda Hasenfratz of Linamar.
All five have demonstrated the qualities any CEO needs for success. First, no leader has all the answers. It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that really counts.
Second, every leader must realize that while it’s OK to stoke your own fire, you can’t let anyone see you fanning the flames. Egofeed may be fine for film stars. Business leaders should not be celebrities. Humility is the new watchword.
The third and most important attribute is character. J. P. Morgan might have been the first to endorse character. “Before money or property or anything else,” he said. A robber baron from the Gilded Age may be a curious person to cite, but in this case, he was absolutely right.

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