News & Insights

POSTED Monday 21-02-22

What Makes a Top CEO? Top 5 Qualities Searched for in Candidates

We’ve all heard the complaint: the majority of CEOs are white men with a privileged background, inherited wealth, and/or an education at Oxbridge. And if the Robert Half FTSE (Financial Times Stock Exchange) 100 CEO Tracker is accurate, then this typical profile has not changed even now. Yet despite these biases, there is a desire amongst higher-ups for the typical CEO profile to change and represent more diverse candidates. Charlie Grubb, UK managing director of Robert Half Executive Search, expressed that ‘We look forward to the day when diversity at the highest levels stops being a discussion item and starts becoming a reality.’ At Aspen, we too have promoted the benefits of having a diverse board, and believe that quality candidates should progress regardless of background. As companies are being encourage to set aside gender, racial, and class biases, the more opportunities there are for the best people to advance. As such, we’re exploring what qualities and experiences make a top CEO, so you can build up as strong profile as possible when looking to progress to the highest positions available.


  1. Industry insight

The role of a CEO is to have the final say in the decision-making, and so industry insight is invaluable in helping you make those tough decisions. This is reflected in the hiring trends of CEOs in recent years, which show that 46% of all current CEOs were internally promoted, presumably due to their familiarity with the company and its industry. Generally, industry experience, knowledge, and exposure are more valued than education, with only a quarter of current CEOs having MBAs and only 5% having PhDs. Of course, education never hurts, and holding professional certifications such as ACCA or CIMA has a strong correlation to career progression, since they hone the necessary skills to fulfil a top role. However, don’t be put off if you aren’t an Oxbridge graduate: only 18% of current CEOs are, and there is evidence that it is becoming less important in choosing candidates. The key is having strong industry insights to bring to the role and which will help inform those crucial decisions now in your hands.


  1. Leadership skills and experience

Being a leader does not come naturally to all of us, but just like any skill, it’s one that’s perfected with practice. If you’re considering applying to a CEO position, it is absolutely vital you have leadership experience, as you will need to present as a leader in all capacities. You’ll need to inspire employees to work towards the company’s vision and objectives; convince others of your decision-making process; listen and take on expert advice; and generally ride the line of being confident and assured but approachable and cooperative. Positions of authority can be daunting for those without years of built-up experience and confidence, and that pressure will only be exacerbated at CEO level. When running a company, being calm and clear-headed, but also energetic and enthusiastic, is absolutely crucial to its success. Having experience in leadership at executive or management level is a therefore a requisite, not just to handle the pressure, but to feel confident in presenting as a leader to the company at all levels.


  1. Clear communication skills

When managing teams of people or sculpting out a new vision or strategy for the company, clear communication is at the heart of it all. If you and your employees aren’t on the same page, it can be frustrating and stressful for both sides when plans and actions aren’t in harmony. As a leader, you need to make clear the direction and strategies you want implemented, and crucially, why. Employees aren’t drones, and they will be more motivated (and produce better work!) if you communicate the hows and whys regarding the company’s vision and objectives. Depending on your team, there are many ways to open communication channels: be it weekly meetings, being accessible by phone or email, or even having team excursions and getaways to strengthen trust (and in turn, communication). Be creative in helping your team hear you and vice versa. Which leads us to our next quality…


  1. Creativity

Part of the CEO’s role is to innovate, in order to gain an advantage over competitors. Industry insight is obviously important here, but more than that, you need to be able to take that insight and craft new ideas, solutions, and strategies. Of course, you won’t be alone; you’ll have team members to discuss and brainstorm with who will likely have valuable insights themselves. But at the end of the day, the onus is on the CEO to turn the tide in the face of challenges and/or losses; to carve out a niche not being addressed in the market; or to offer better, more streamlined services than competitors. Creative thinking often comes with the experience needed for a candidate to be considering applying for a CEO, but it’s important to know how to bring it to your specific industry.


  1. Finance background

This isn’t a must, but it is certainly favoured by employers. Stats show that 52% of the current FTSE 100 CEOs have work experience in finance or accountancy, and 20% are qualified chartered accountants (ACA). Having financial know-how is yet another of the many qualities valued in CEOs, and it is worth considering pursuing an accountancy qualification not just to be attractive to employers, but to handle that aspect of the role more competently. If you already have experience in finance or accountancy, then great; make sure to emphasise that you do.


The qualities of a top CEO are necessarily varied: working with numbers, people, industries, and abstract ideas mean that employers are looking for highly skilled and well-rounded candidates with the experience to back them up. This isn’t really surprising considering the power, pressure, and responsibility that comes with such a high-level position, but as with any role, to be considered it is important to highlight the knowledge and experiences you’ve accumulated over time, and pursue any qualifications that will likely put you at an advantage.

At Aspen, we encourage a culture that promotes the best candidate over preconceptions of what a typical CEO looks like, and hope that institutional barriers give way to quality candidates who can demonstrate that they have these valuable characteristics.