A CEO Competency that Trumps all Others

Shared Leadership Carol Anderson

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]I[/su_dropcap] MUST START WITH a disclaimer: this is not a validated research study. This is Anderson logic, plain and simple, formed by years of experience watching leaders of all levels and skill. After almost 40 years of finding and developing leaders, along with my own leadership success, it hit me like a ton of bricks one day. I’m not sure what was the catalyst, but it’s sort of like a BGO – a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Once you get it, it just makes sense.

I believe that this competency is all a CEO really needs.  Why? Because in exhibiting this competency, a CEO must demonstrate every other competency in any model, anywhere. It is a guide to communication, trust, collaboration, planning, execution, relationship building, conflict resolution, critical thinking, coaching and judgment, to name just a few. And it works for leaders other than the CEO.

It is so simple that any leader can remember just the one word, rather than a lot of fluffy buzzwords. I like simple. It gets beyond all the noise and provides keen focus.

Are you ready?

Here it is.


ceoThat’s it.  Connect. A CEO, or any leader for that matter, needs to be an effective connector.

Think for just a minute about our world today.  It is fast, it is technologically dependent, and it is extraordinarily complex. Deep expertise is critical, but at the same time deep expertise can be dangerous.  It becomes dangerous when decisions are made in a vacuum, when perceptions are left unchallenged, and when conflict of expertise causes organizational paralysis.

This is the real job of top leadership: to facilitate real and meaningful connections up, down and across the organization.  It doesn’t require special knowledge or skills other than the ability to ask good questions and establish connections that will discover good answers.

What and who must the CEO connect?  Really, anything and everything, but here are a few ideas to start.

The leadership team to the vision. Only the CEO knows the scope and purpose of the work going on in an organization. The CEO has the vision in her head, and can connect teams to teams, work to strategy and the business to the customer. Department heads have their own vision and own ideas, and occasionally misalign to the big picture.

Asking good questions keeps everyone on the same path.

“So Mr. CIO,” the CEO says, “I like your recommendation for a document storage system. Has everyone who needs to be involved, been involved? That’s all the CEO needs to know because if the answer is “No,” the project is in jeopardy because a key player may have been left out. If the answer is an honest “Yes,” the experts are collaborating and project stands a much better chance of success. It might take some practice to get to the honest answer, but all important things take practice.

The employees to the organization.  I’m tired of the term “employee engagement.” It’s not descriptive, it’s not personal and it’s not actionable. But if you simply ask “do the employees feel connected to the organization and to their leaders,” there is implied customized relationship that salutes the fact that every employee connects differently, because of who they are.

A leader has to actively connect. That means he must learn about each employee, find common ground, and light that spark that will create drive and commitment.

A leader also has to facilitate the connection of employees to the organization. Without a connection to the organization, work is just work. With a connection, work can drive performance.

Oh, and connecting the employees to the organization encompasses listening to what they have to say.

Line to Staff, and Staff to Line

Line units have revenue and expense. Staff units have expense. When optimal, staff units relieve revenue producers from having to focus on anything other than driving revenue. This achieves economies of scale, and helps to ensure consistency across the organization.

By connecting the staff units to the line, they are forced to view the line as their customer, to provide helpful processes, and to make sure that they are adding value. A simple question on the part of the CEO can establish the connection….”Are you getting what you need from [HR, Finance, IT, etc]?

By connecting line to staff, a CEO can help the revenue producer recognize the value of consistency and discipline in organizational process. But the CEO may have to gently remind the line of the value as it usually isn’t readily apparent.

Staff units may not produce revenue, but they are the thread that holds the pieces together that, when consistent, disciplined, measurable and relevant, drive the business forward. Conversely, the CEO also needs to ask the question of the staff…”What are you doing to drive our business?”

The organization to learning

A CEO can draw connections up, down and across the organization to create an atmosphere of continuous learning. The questions a CEO asks tell the leaders, employees and the organization what is important to her, and can encourage thinking broadly. Questions like, “What did we learn from this project?” and “How can we use what we learned to improve?” create a safe space to look candidly at what worked and what didn’t, and use that knowledge to learn as an organization.

We humans need to connect

Research by Dr. David Rock, CEO of the Neuroleadership Institute, indicates that emotional or social pain creates the same effect in our brains as physical pain.  Scientist Matthew Lieberman’s research concludes that our brains are wired for connection, and lack of connection is (his word) “kryptonite” to any organization. Read Michael Lee Stallard’s book, “The Connection Culture: The competitive advantage of shared identify, empathy and understanding at work,” – particularly Chapter 4 which gives an overview of the science behind connection – if you want more empirical proof of the promise of connection.

Connection encompasses everything a CEO must do. 

The CEO need not have deep expertise in Finance, but he must connect the CFO to every facet of the organization.  She need not be an expert in human behavior, but she needs to connect Human Resources to Finance, and to every facet of the organization.

Collaborate? The CEO needs to connect those who need to collaborate. Plan and execute? The CEO must connect the execution back to the plan.  Resolve conflict? Connecting those in conflict means facilitating the discovery of common ground. Judgment? Connecting everyone who has a vested interest will offer the best possibility of a good outcome.  Critical thinking? Connect the best minds.

As a leader, I was challenged to “improve employee engagement.” To me, that was a nebulous challenge. What is engagement, and how do I make it happen.  The reality is, I can’t make it happen. The very best I can do is look for each and every opportunity to make connections, with people, with strategy and with the organization.  Now that makes sense to me.

And since Gallup says that “managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement,” doesn’t it make sense to make connection an organizational and leadership priority?


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. Hello Carol, it makes sense to hire managers who have the talent for job success. Most managers don’t know what talent is needed for each job so they hire the most competent, best educated, best talker, etc., but not the best employees.

    ≈ 80% of employees self-report that they are not engaged.
    ≈ 80% of managers are ill suited to effectively manage people.
    * The two 80 percents are closely related.

    Employers keep hiring the wrong people to be their managers and then they wonder why they have so few successful, engaged employees. Successful employees have all three of the following success predictors while unsuccessful employees lack one or two and usually it is Job Talent that they lack.
    I. Competence
    II. Cultural Fit
    III. Job Talent 

    Employers do a… 

    A. GREAT job of hiring competent employees, about 95%
    B. good job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture, about 70%
    C. POOR job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture and who have a talent for the job, about 20%

    Identifying the talent required for each job seems to be missing from talent and management discussions. If we ignore any of the three criteria, our workforce will be less successful with higher turnover than if we do not ignore any of the three criteria.
    I. Competence
    II. Cultural Fit
    III. Job Talent

    There are many factors to consider when hiring and managing talent but first we need to define talent unless “hiring talent” means “hiring employees.” Everyone wants to hire for and manage talent but if we can’t answer the five questions below with specificity, we can’t hire or manage talent effectively.
    A. How do we define talent?
    B. How do we measure talent?
    C. How do we know a candidate’s talent?
    D. How do we know what talent is required for each job?
    E. How do we match a candidate’s talent to the talent demanded by the job?

    Most managers cannot answer the five questions with specificity but the answers provide the framework for hiring successful employees and creating an engaged workforce.

    Talent is not found in resumes or interviews or background checks or college transcripts.

    Talent must be hired since it cannot be acquired or imparted after the hire.