Kim Powell is back and she’s changing the perspective about who can be a successful CEO! Podcast veteran Kim Powell returns to the podcast to discuss key takeaways from her latest book, The CEO Next Door. Kim explains the traits of successful executive directors and debunks CEO myths.
(4:19) Myth #1: Successful CEOs have Ivy League degrees.
(5:07) Myth #2: Successful CEOs began pursuing the top seat early in their careers.
(6:16) Myth #3: The CEO is a superhero who saves the day.
(7:29) Myth #4: Successful CEOs are extroverts.
(8:05) Myth #5: Successful CEOs have swung from success to success throughout their careers.
(9:30) Career blowups are an opportunity to learn
(11:30) Step “broad”
(15:10) Kim discusses four behaviors that can propel someone to the CEO position
(15:44) Behavior 1: Being decisive
(18:20) Behavior 2: Delivering reliably
(20:56) Behavior 3: Engaging for impact
(21:43) Behavior 4: Adapting proactively
(25:01) Kim’s shares the most interesting interview conducted for her book
(28:55) Kim shares the most diplomatic ways interviewees turned down her interviews for her book
Kim’s website: http://www.ghSMART.com
Buy the book: The CEO Next Door: www.ceonextdoorbook.com
Kim’s debut, Episode 27: https://www.successfulnonprofits.com/archive/creating-a-100-day-launch-plan-for-your-new-ceo-with-kim-powell-episode-27
Episode 74 – The CEO Next Door with Kim Powell
Dolph Goldenburg: Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits™ Podcast. I’m your host Dolph Goldenburg with another great conversation that will help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment. We are bringing back one of our most popular guests for an encore performance, and I am truly excited to have another conversation with Kim Powell. I think it was episode 26. We recorded a conversation about creating a 100-day launch plan for your new CEO. Now, this has been among our most downloaded episodes, and if you are one of the few who has not already listened to it, it is well worth the download. Today, we will be speaking to Kim about her new book, The CEO Next Door. The book is a culmination of an in-depth analysis of over 2,600 leaders drawn from a database of more than 17,000 CEOs and C-suite executives. It has over 13,000 hours of interviews behind it and two decades of experience in advising CEOs and executive boards. With her co-author Elena Botello, Kim Powell overturns the myths about what it takes to get to the top and to succeed. So, join me as we have an incredible conversation with Kim Powell.
Hey, Kim. Welcome to the podcast.
Kim Powell: Thanks, Dolph. I’m happy to be back.
Dolph Goldenburg: You are among our most downloaded episodes on episode 27, so I am thrilled your back as well. Clearly, the listeners loved you, and you’re back by popular demand. In your new book The CEO Next Door, I know that you do some myth-busting about what it takes to get to the top seed. Talk to me about some of those myths.
Kim Powell: Yeah, definitely. First, in my day job, I interact with hundreds of current and aspiring CEOs and executive directors, and after all of those hours, countless hours, I started to really question the view of what does a CEO or executive director look and act like, at least in the U.S. The vast majority of our data is U.S.-based because frankly, the media presents aa view of what a good CEO looks like; it’s this larger than life care, as perfect pedigree, like golden career path view, and frankly, it just didn’t resonate from what I experienced having walked through the career histories of hundreds of current and aspiring CEOs, and so it was one of the triggers actually for the origination of the book was to say, “Wait a minute. We have such a broad representation of leaders who are leading organizations in the U.S. Why don’t we mine that? Why don’t we unpack what those CEOs really look like and what it takes them to be successful?” We had a hunch it is different than the picture we all hold in our heads of what a CEO or a leader of an organization looks like. So, a couple of things actually came through in our research. For everyone out there who doesn’t have a perfect pedigree, I was super glad to see that frankly, we have more CEOs without a college degree in our data set than we had CEOs who had ivy league degrees.
Granted, we’re still talking, like, eight percent did not have a college degree in our Dataset. Only seven percent had an Ivy League degree. These are people who generate the economic engine of our country and provide roles and provide the support infrastructure and the safety net in some cases for our broad population. The reality is you don’t have to be perfect to be a successful leader. For all those folks out there who feel like you need to have a certain resume, that actually didn’t prove out in our data. That was one big one for me. The second one is I had this impression that if you’re going to be a leader of an organization, you know it early on in your life. You’ve got a goal. You’re climbing the ladder. You’re taking charge, and clearly, you have this destination of being a CEO in mind.
Well, we did almost 100 interviews of CEOs and executive directors, and a little over 70 percent did not know they wanted to lead an organization and in some cases did not want to lead an organization until they were much later in their careers, the step or two prior to taking on an executive director or a CEO role. To me, this was also enlightening for those leaders out there who say, “not sure, that’s for me,” for whatever reason, that’s pretty common, and often people recognize later in their career that it is something they want to take on. They do want to direct an organization and provide opportunities and help achieve goals, and it’s not something that you needed to know early in your life or necessarily be working on early in your life. I would say the third myth that struck me in our research is we all have this perception, at least I certainly did, that a CEO is a superhero figure, right?
This courageous-setting direction- I-am-going-to-swoop-in savior over this organization and in reality when we did our research, the weakest CEOs actually used a much higher ratio of the word “I” when they talk about their careers than they used the word “we.” The stronger CEOs were those that were higher performing use the term we. We did this. We achieved that. It wasn’t this individualistic hero. The high performers were those that unleashed the power of a team and talked about it as a “we.” That I thought was very interesting and somewhat counterintuitive to this kind of mental picture of a CEO. The fourth I would say is there’s a belief that you’ve got to be this larger than life extrovert, charismatic, kissing babies, shaking hands, connecting with everyone, working the community building those bridges; interestingly, introverts were slightly more likely to exceed expectations in our data. If you find yourself someone who recharges alone, don’t have fear; it certainly doesn’t negatively impact performance, at least based on our data. The last one I would call out is… I had this vision to get to the CEO seat and to be a leader driving an organization forward, you really had to not make mistakes. You had to be pretty successful all along the way. In reality, when we looked at the research, almost half, about 45 percent, of CEOs in our study actually had a major career blow up. This would be where they destroyed significant value or got fired, made a bad acquisition. 70 percent of the CEO candidates that we looked at went on to win the top job and become CEO or executive director somewhere. These career blowups didn’t negatively affect their career trajectory. Obviously, you probably can’t pull up every role you’ve ever held, but I took that as a great piece of knowledge that it is okay to have some zigs and zags in your career. And you can still reach the top role in the organization if you so choose.
Dolph Goldenburg: So, some people have career blowups. When we look at the nonprofit sector, a significant percentage of executive directors are either forced out or fired; it’s not 70 percent but it’s double digits, you know. So, part of what I think I hear you saying is people have that career blow up, they’re forced out there fired, there’s a big issue, but maybe they take a step back and they evaluate what their role and responsibility was in that.
Kim Powell: Yes, and you know, what was fascinating about our research is those who reflected on those blow-ups as a failure, like they actually talked about it using the word failure, were less likely to be successful as a CEO. Those that talked about career blowups as a lesson learned or a mistake that was made that they have now corrected and done differently were more likely to be successful. There’s also a mindset aspect here. Where are you looking at a blowup as a personal failure, or are you looking at it as an opportunity to learn and do better next time? The single biggest underused asset in our career life are our mistakes and things that don’t work out. That came through in the research, which is great to see.
Dolph Goldenburg: What I hear you saying is that there’s no one real path to the CEO chair; it’s not like you come in as a fundraiser or a salesperson and then, you know, you move up and you’re running a sales department or a fundraising department and you know, then you just keep moving up until you’re the CEO.
Kim Powell: Correct. We did dive in and look at the career paths of those that made it to the CEO seat and we looked at those that made it to the CEO seat faster than the average to see, what did they do? Did they do different things to get there? Were there patterns we could all learn from? There were a couple of patterns that I think match exactly what you just mentioned, one of which is a significant proportion would take a smaller role or with a smaller organization to broaden their ownership over different functions. We call it go small to go big. Often, they took a step in their career that from the outside looks like, wow, was that a. was that a step back? But in reality, it was a step broad if you will, to step out of whatever function they had been trained in potentially early in their career, and maybe they had oversight of just of HR, also finance or services and something else. They might have moved to a smaller nonprofit or smaller organization, but they actually sat over multiple functions so they could learn more broadly. That was one of the markers that we saw for those that actually accelerated, and that’s counterintuitive.
Dolph Goldenburg: I need to share with you that actually that made me feel good about something I did in my career, which I always kind of look back on and felt like maybe it was a mistake. When I read that, I thought, well, okay, maybe what I did was not such a big mistake. I was running the grant department of a multimillion-dollar organization which ended up really being from my first job, and it grew into that. Then, I went to a much smaller organization as their development director. They had a budget of like 400,000. I took a 20 percent pay cut and you know, looking back on that, I’ve always thought, gee, Dolph, you took a 20 percent pay cut and you know, and if that 20 percent would have compounded over the 20 years since then, I would have been making more money over that 20-year period. But when I read, okay, you know that sometimes people take a career move that might not make sense on paper but helps them get the skills or the experience needed to then move up. Admittedly, it made me feel a lot better.
Kim Powell: Yeah, well, and you probably built some new muscles and some new learning, and so, that ultimately propelled you to where you are today, which is probably worth a lot more money.
Dolph Goldenburg: It’s funny because like apparently, I’m doing therapy through podcasting. I’m working through my own stuff as part of having this podcast.
Kim, we’re going to take a short break, and when we come back, we’re going to talk about some more of those behaviors that can propel someone to the CEO position.
Kim Powell: Sounds great.
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Hey, welcome back, Kim. I know you have talked about the behaviors in the book that can propel someone forward to the CEO position. What are some more of those behaviors?
Kim Powell: Going back to the research, there were four behaviors. And the great thing about these generically before I go into them specifically is that they’re all buildable. These are not intrinsic things that you’re born with and if you’re not tough luck. They are all buildable skills and behaviors. Granted, you know, new habits are hard. Old habits are hard to break. New habits are hard to build. However, I was very happy to see they weren’t intrinsic things like fundamental IQ or things of that nature. The four things that we saw statistically defined, high performing CEOs are the following. The first is they’re decisive. The first behavior is all about decisiveness, and this is actually about the speed of decisions. Act deciding with speed and conviction, not necessarily having the perfect highly analytical, accurate decision, which, you know, frankly being a recovering management consultant who loves data, this is good for me to hear. The litmus test we heard over and over again is, look, if you as the CEO are not making rapid decisions, there’s absolutely no way your organization can. You will be slowing down the overall achievement of the impact you want to make on your community or your customers.
So, that was the first one, and decisive CEOs were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs. That is the first, and the litmus test I’m using now personally is, if I had to decide in 30 seconds what’s my decision on whatever the issue is and if I feel like I can decide, then I almost always discount the value of further information and really force myself to move. The reality is sometimes I’ll be wrong. Right? You have to learn from that, apply that learning and make a better decision and train that muscle to essentially be more accurate. You do it by making lots and lots of decisions more quickly.
Dolph Goldenburg: Let me just make sure I understand the number on that. So you said that CEOs that can be decisive are 12 times, not 12 percent, but 12 times more likely. Twelve hundred percent more likely.
Kim Powell: That’s a big number in the high performing camp. Yeah. Behind the scenes, what we had to do to collect this information, we had to go back to boards of directors and asked for performance data for these CEOS. Did these CEOs meet, or did they exceed, or did they not meet the performance expectations in the role? We had some viewpoint even in nonpublic or nonprofit organizations whether the CEO was successful, and so that was critical information to then run against all of the assessment data, all the behavioral data that we’ve gathered over 10 years. So, that was the first.
The second behavior, and this one on first glance I was like, that’s so boring. The second behavior is about being reliable. It’s about delivering reliably, and interestingly, this one had the strongest impact on being high-performing.
If you deliver reliably and you show up reliably, you’re 15 times more likely to be in the high-performing CEO camp. So, it is really impactful. It was also the only behavior that we saw correlated with hiring in addition to performance. We also looked separately at what gets you hired from what leads you to be high performing. We can talk about the fact that those aren’t always correlated. You’d expect them to be the same. You’d like them to be the same, but often what gets you hired is not necessarily what drives high performance. In this case, that’s not true. Being relentlessly reliable both helps you get hired and helps you be high-performing, and this is really around ensuring you have a repeatable system for reliability – the right rhythms, the right communication cadences, the right metrics, the right dashboards. But it also importantly means as a CEO, you are proactively setting expectations with those around you, and that allows you to then deliver against those expectations.
If you let other people define success and set expectations for you, it’s a lot harder to control and, potentially, a lot harder to deliver against. So, the CEOs that were successful really took the reins and said, this is what I think we can do. This is how I think we can do it and went out proactively to set those expectations with others. The other thing I saw in the highly successful CEOs was they held themselves relentlessly accountable. We call it like radical personal accountability. These CEOs would publish their 360 feedback from their teams across their whole organizations, and they would do things that really stuck out as I want you, my organization and my board to hold me accountable, and I’m not afraid to hang out my dirty laundry. The reason they do that is because they can hold their teams accountable and in an open, transparent manner.
To me, this is one where it does make sense. At first blush, it feels boring. Reliability doesn’t sound very sexy, but it is critically important to delivering high performance in the role. The third is around engaging for impact. This is all about, how do I help move my different constituencies, who all have different goals, different motivations, how do I move them towards an aligned, collective objective? That’s really hard to do. The CEOs that do it really well, frankly, are not relating for affinity. They’re not relating to be liked. They’re relating to move this group or this individual to a given goal. Frankly, it means that they have a clear view of intense. Where are we trying to go and how does it get us further towards the goals or the impact we’re trying to create on our communities? The last is adapting proactively. The successful CEOs are proactive about, what is changing in my communities and my environments in my external world and my competitive set? They proactively seek to change and adapt their organizations to the needs that are changing around them.
The CEOs who do this well were seven times more likely to be high-performing CEOs. I wasn’t surprised to see this, given the rapid changes in technology and the disruption that’s happening in various industries. This rang true to me. I think when you peel under the cover, the CEOS who do this really well are spending more time thinking out into the future than other CEOs. We saw them double the amount of time. We did some time studies. We saw them double the amount of time they were spending thinking one year out. Fundamentally, probably in a smaller organization as the CEO, the only person thinking a year out – How is my service population or how are my customers or my competitive set changing? – You’re probably in a position to tap diverse information sources in a way that others in your organization might not be in a position to do. It’s really your job to be looking ahead and then guiding the organization proactively to change.
Dolph Goldenburg: I also think that decisiveness and that future forward adaptability are really closely linked.
Kim Powell: No, it’s definitely true. For example, I look at nonprofit leaders who are in smaller organizations who also often don’t have a lot of resources, and then the second category, entrepreneurs, again, smaller organizations, not a lot of resources. Those two groups are actually in a great position to build both the decisive muscle and the adaptation muscle because of a few things. With decisiveness, you got to move pretty quickly, or you’re going to go out of business. You are almost in a fire every day, and it really trains that muscle of decision making. Then on the other hand for adaptation, you don’t have a lot of resources around you. So, if you’re not ahead of the curve, again, you have this pressure of, how do I secure funding? Where’s the funding going? Where’s my competitive set going? Does my product fit the needs of the customer set or the market I’m trying to serve? If you don’t stay ahead of that, again, you’re out of business. You’ve got no cushion. I do think those two groups are in a position to build those behaviors more readily than if you might be buried in a very large institution and don’t have that sea of change and lack of resources around you.
Dolph Goldenburg: Now, I know in preparation for this book, you did an ungodly number of interviews with CEOs. Was there one that really stood out to you and could you share with us why that one stood out with you? Obviously, you want to keep the person anonymous, but could you share with us a little bit about that interview?
Kim Powell: Sure. On the macro level, I was surprised by how motivating these conversations were, and it was part of it was the spirit behind the book actually, which was, “Gosh, if we can unpack what these CEOs are really like – the mistakes they made, the realness, the genuineness, the things that they wrestle with in their heads – maybe more people will want to be leaders.” I found myself being very motivated, hanging up the phone being like, “Oh my gosh, maybe I can be a CEO.”
I probably shouldn’t be a CEO, but I felt that way, that excitement, that motivation, the sense that, gosh, you know, you can make a difference even if you’re not perfect or look a certain way or have a certain background. I will say the interviews were really, really motivating. The one that stands out… I interviewed a leader. I can give some broad stroke description. He’s on his third CEO gig. He currently runs a fashion company, mid-market, so it’s a decent size company. It is for-profit, and he was very open number one about things that went wrong, and frankly, he got seduced by a CEO role that he knew was not the right fit, and he couldn’t say no and ultimately it ended in his early dismissal; he reflects back on that that had he done a better job being conscious about his fit to the role, that he could have side step to that and ended up in a better place more quickly.
Certainly, would avoid some pain along the way, but he was very open about what he learned from that process and how he now basically articulates a scorecard for himself. What is the type of CEO role where he can be most effective? When he looks for future roles, he uses that as a kind of a litmus test. He does his own interview, counter interview, if you will. One of the things we found is [fit] to the scorecard – that particular role, what is the needed results, what are the objectives and measurable objectives – you having a fit to what is needed is actually one of the biggest drivers of overall success for a given role. Oftentimes, either we’re too busy, or we really feel like this is the only role that will come by or that it’ll be too presumptuous to ask too many questions, and we don’t get underneath, is this really going to be a good fit for me? We stumble into roles where we’re not at our best. Typically, those don’t end well. I really appreciated his raw honesty and how he learned from that experience so that we can all benefit from that learning.
Dolph Goldenburg: Thank you for sharing that because I do think that all of us, myself and all of our listeners, can benefit from that. Have a scorecard. Have a grid of what a good fit looks like for you and feel really confident that it’s a good fit before you walk in.
Kim Powell: Correct. Those are [partially culture]. It’s partially boss fit. There’s a variety of things you can look at.
Dolph Goldenburg: Kim, before we let you go, I want to ask you the Off-the-Map question and you know, we started this interview with me confessing that I actually was not sure what the Off-the-Map question was going to be and oftentimes I do have a sense and other times I have to wait for the muse and this time the news gave me something and hopefully it’s something good.
I’m assuming that as you or your office was reaching out to Prospective CEOs to ask if you could interview them. I am assuming that you got some ‘no’s’ and response. People said they were too busy, whatever. What did you learn from those ‘no’s’, and what were some of the diplomatic ways that some people turn down an offer to be interviewed?
Kim Powell: That’s a great question. I love it, Dolph, and I have not been asked that ever.
Dolph Goldenburg: I hate to presume that someone has told, you ‘no,’ but I’m assuming that somewhere along the way
Kim Powell: The reality is sometimes…so they fell into two camps. Frankly, we didn’t get that many ‘no’s.’ Our access is pretty good and working with boards affords us an entree that is harder to say no to.
As a CEO, your board members suggest it, you’re more likely to do it… So, we did have that tailwind pushing us forward, but we did get a couple of categories of no’s. One was a point-in-time ‘no,’ meaning we would hear back that they are in a middle of fill in the blank, a major acquisition getting from the stock market, you know, some massive change in their business where they just knew for a six-month period, they had to be laser-focused and not distracted with anything on the outside. So, that was one category. I think that also fits into the category of like gentle, appropriate democratic ways of saying no. It’s clearly understandable that not everyone’s accessible when you need them, right?
Dolph Goldenburg: Yeah.
Kim Powell: Then the second category that we got was a more categorical, I don’t do that. I’m not sure if you described that as democratic or not.
Dolph Goldenburg: I don’t eat fish, so I’m not going to have fish with you.
Kim Powell: Exactly. I’m a vegetarian, but in this case, it was a non-interview-tarian. We did have a few individuals that they just choose to not be participative in outside activities, and they framed it not specifically on interviews, but some CEOs are really critical on how they spend their time, especially large public CEOs. I respect that they need to be clear. They do one public board or one nonprofit board or however many. They have very clear lines in the sand around time allocation, and we did not fit in their priority set, and I respect that.
Dolph Goldenburg: Kim, that is a great way to end the podcast today to learn some nice and polite ways that people would say ‘no’ to you, even though it was infrequent, thankfully.
Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I am grateful that you shared so much of what you learned as part of researching and writing this book. I cannot encourage our listeners enough to go to www.ceonextdoorbook.com, and order a copy of this book. It is an incredible boo, whether you are already a CEO, whether you want to be a CEO or whether you’re just interested in career development. Maybe you want to be a CFO or a program manager, there will be things in this book that will help you achieve your career goals. So, Kim, thank you again for joining us today.
Kim Powell: Thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure.
Dolph Goldenburg: Were you unable to write down the URL www.ceonextdoorbook.com because you just gave your last pen to the Smithsonian Institution? Fear not. You can always go to www.successfulnonprofits.com to get that URL, and while you’re online, be sure to subscribe on your podcast streamer of choice and rate and review the podcast. That is our show for this week. I hope you have gained some insight that will help your nonprofit thrive in a competitive environment.
(Disclaimer) I’m not an accountant or attorney, and neither I nor the Successful Nonprofits™ provide tax, legal or accounting advice. This material has been providing for informational purposes only and is not intended or should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. Always consult a qualified licensed professional about such matters.