The 6 Plates You Have To Spin For Your Success As A CEO

The CEO’s role is more critical than ever. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer[i] as business leaders helped us navigate pandemics, supply chains, labour shortages, geopolitical instability, and climate events, trust in CEOs has increased.

At the same time, trust has decreased in government leaders, religious leaders, community leaders, and media leaders.

So, maybe it’s time for CEOs to step up and make a difference. 

Yet very few people excel in the CEO role. 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs last less than three years in the role.

With a record like that, you might think there would be better field guides on how to excel as a CEO than a library full of memoirs written by old white men and Navy Seals.

Being a CEO involves these six core responsibilities: direction-setting, aligning the organization, mobilizing through leaders, engaging the board, connecting with stakeholders, and managing your effectiveness.

Six separate responsibilities need to be managed simultaneously and all the time. It’s about spinning plates, not finding silver bullets. 

Six mindsets make a difference. The authors[ii] of the article[iii] I based this post on I found a core mindset on each of the role dimensions that separated the best from the rest.

Direction-setting. Top-performing CEOs did not play it safe. Instead, they asked, “How do we increase the speed? How do we go to a better destination? For example, Mary Barra at GM did not say, “Let’s win in global automotive.” She said, “Let’s transform transportation.” 

Get the 9 questions to see if your organization is ready for change

Aligning the organization with Clarity. Creating Clarity at the executive level is essential to building and maintaining a healthy organization. Clarity is created by answering the critical questions to eliminate discrepancies among team members and create an agreed-upon playbook.

Read more about creating clarity

Mobilizing through the First Team model. The first and most critical step in a healthy organization is creating a cohesive leadership team committed to doing the ongoing work of developing and maintaining a high-performing team. This is the cement that holds the organization together, as bricks are useless without the cement. 

Find out what the 1st Team is

Top-performing board engagement CEOs ask, “How do I help my board help my business?” That translates to different approaches to transparency, how many forward-looking items go on the agenda, how they influence the board’s composition, and how they think about Board education.

How to know when there is trouble in Board/CEO paradise

Connecting with stakeholders. Most people ask, “Okay, who do I meet, and when? What do I need to say?” Top CEOs, the focus on “why” am I meeting this person.

Personal effectiveness. Top-performing CEOs had the mindset of, “I’m going to do what only I can do. All else gets delegated to others and handled in different ways. So, everything still gets done, but I’m going to add the value that I uniquely can add.”

These lessons matter everywhere. The learnings from these CEOs are every bit applicable to less complex leadership environments.

This work can help leaders everywhere—not just CEOs—be more effective. 



[ii] Scott Keller is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company. Carolyn Dewar is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company. Vikram (Vik) Malhotra is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company.