What does it take to be a successful CEO (that can’t be taught)?

by Lucy Greenwood, Finance Relationship Manager, Career Centre

Two months ago LBS hosted our annual student-led TEDx conference, with inspirational speakers, diverse topics and thought-provoking takeaways. Career Centre’s Finance Relationship Manager Lucy Greenwood explores just one of those ideas and shares how it can help you own the trajectory of your Business career.

What does the CEO of Goldman Sachs have in common with the CEO of Electronic Arts? There’s more than just their titles… They both commit to ‘serious leisure’. One is a bona fide DJ the other a Jiu Jitsu expert.

Technology has evolved to allow constant communication. Attitudes towards strict working hours have become somewhat blurry. Our work is present in so many aspects of our lives outside of the office; whether we’re checking our emails when we get into bed or just getting that last piece of work sent out after dinner. It is therefore unrealistic to assume that you can get all the information you need about a person’s professional success from just investigating the 9-5; the environment of their office or their relationship with their desk mate. Whilst these are definitely factors to consider, we are left with the necessity to examine our activities outside of the office and consider that this may directly impact the output of our work.

In 2017, it was proven that CEO’s who also maintain a hobby of flying airplanes are associated with significantly better innovation outcomes in their work. Am I suggesting we all need to become pilots? No. The common thread that these ‘pilot’ CEO’s share with our bona fide DJ and Jiu Jitsu expert is that these credentials capture the personality trait of ‘sensation seeking’.

This is precisely what Emilia Bunea, a non-executive director and leadership scholar with C-suite experience in the financial industry, has dedicated her time to researching. She has interviewed multiple CEO’s of S&P 500 index companies and found that those who participate in serious leisure activities are, unknowingly, holding the secret to success.

A serious leisure activity counts as anything from sports to volunteering. It must be something that by your own standards you are improving and excelling in. So if I pop to the park and kick a ball about with friends and keep a vague score count – that is NOT a serious leisure activity. If I commit myself to run the London marathon, then next year commit to train and do it in less time, and continue to pursue this until I am in the Top 10 for my age group – then that IS a serious leisure activity. Playing music through a fancy docking system in your basement – not a serious leisure activity, but booking gigs in Ibiza and DJing to thousands of people – definitely a serious leisure activity. It is also important to note; it has been found that excessive CEO golfing may actually harm shareholder value. This is likely due to individuals trying to ‘live up’ to a certain skill that isn’t their true serious leisure. Traditionally, a lot of business was discussed during a round of golf, this therefore proves that the activity needs to prevent thoughts of work to correlate with success at work

If you are serious about an activity, it will provide detachment like nothing else can. Being a CEO means more responsibility and more attention is required than could ever be measured. One can easily be distracted whilst at dinner or even on holiday. But if all of the attention and focus is on pushing that activity, it is not possible for your mind to drift and become distracted by work. In the Jiu Jitsu example the CEO stated “when someone’s trying to take your head off, you pretty much can only think about that”.

Having a serious leisure also means constantly striving for your “best self”. This is most definitely a transferable skill between leadership in activities and leadership at work. If you are pushing yourself to compete in the USA triathlon championship, like Bill Demchak CEO of PNC Bank, then you have an alternative pursuit to your professional life. This pursuit can teach you lessons about hard work and determination in a different perspective to that taught through office work. It also allows your mental self to attach to more than just one measure of success. With long hours and omniscient responsibility, the mental health of a person is strained. By allowing a totally separate attachment you are diffusing that strain and allowing your identity to become more than just ‘CEO’.

CEO’s work hard to get where they are. You don’t have to be an expert at a certain sport right now, just like you may not be a CEO right now. Both take hard work and determination and there are many reasons why pursuing both can be mutually beneficial. If you find the right profession, the right serious leisure and the right balance of the two you will reap the rewards.

In London currently you can try out a number of pursuits to get stuck into from axe throwing to cycling the Olympic velodrome.


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