8 Key Traits to Look For in a CEO in 2020

Aug 28, 2020

Key CEO Attributes to Look for in 2020 and Beyond

Written by Baillie Parker 

Published September 2020 – From a leadership and hiring standpoint, transforming businesses and driving change is no easy task. To accomplish the kind of sweeping, transformative change organizations often require, a transformational or “turnaround” CEO is necessary.

The ideal turnaround CEO candidate possesses a unique set of attributes that make him or her the right choice for organizations in distress. We’re inevitably moving into a period in which companies are becoming financially unstable and will need someone to lead them through a difficult period onto a path of profitability.

Following are the top characteristics to seek out in a CEO who is capable of leading a company out of crisis. But first a word of caution to the board that must define the leadership mission and make a successful selection. All leaders have areas of greater and lesser strengths, and turnaround leadership is no different. The board must first come to terms with what matters most in the specific situation the board believes it has at hand, and apply that focus in selection.

A bit more about this after considering the range of attributes that can be put to work in transformational situations:

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Past performance is the greatest indicator of future performance

Look for a CEO who has previously led successful turnarounds. Within those turnarounds, closely evaluate the financial outcome of the business (s)he led to make sure the turnaround was due to more than just timing and broader market conditions.

Understands the importance of cash and cash management

Cash management is not just the responsibility of the CFO. Strong turnaround CEOs who have been through challenging times understand the importance of cash management and banking relationships. They should be focused on the numbers every day.

Operationally minded

This is turnaround 101, but these CEO candidates must be operationally minded. They will have to first find the low hanging fruit in immediate operational and financial improvement opportunities. And while they have to see the big picture, they must also be data-driven, with a focus on the details.

A highly strategic problem solver


Strong turnaround CEOs have the ability to quickly digest information and data and distill the underlying issues in the business. Once you’re far enough along in the interview process, let candidates review the financials and the board documents. Observe what questions they ask.

Look closely at their previous leadership roles and understand how they identified and prioritized problems and came up with a new strategic plan for the business. You don’t want a candidate who is only capable of solving operational issues, which is only one aspect of the turnaround. You also need someone with a demonstrated ability to create a new strategy for growth with a very specific timetable around tactics and execution.

On a recent CEO search for a distressed private equity-backed company, for example, our finalist stood out because he had previous successful turnaround experience. More importantly, though, he had demonstrated success shifting market focus from a troubled sector – in this case energy – into new higher growth markets.

A realist with open and transparent communication style

This person must have the ability to confront the uncomfortable. Once (s)he has distilled down the business challenges, (s)he needs to be able to communicate those problems to the team and create a realistic transformation story that everyone can understand.

During a CEO search for a troubled company, our private equity client was taken aback by the candidate’s directness voicing her concerns about the company’s strategic direction as well as its operational footprint. Ultimately, though, they realized this sort of candor was exactly what they were lacking.

Also, ask the candidate what mistakes (s)he has made in the past and in retrospect how they would do things differently. If the candidate is not self-aware enough to take ownership of past mistakes, (s)he will not have the transparency needed for a turnaround. Having the ability to acknowledge missteps and know how to correct them is key.

Strong sense of urgency

You want to look for a CEO who is decisive and moves quickly. Time is absolutely of the essence in turnaround situations so the ability to drive decisions at a rapid clip is critical.

A track record of making tough choices

This person will likely need to quickly make dramatic changes to the leadership team in order to ensure the turnaround plan can be successful. Moving away from legacy business models and/or processes may also be necessary.

Team builder

Given this person will often change the make-up of the executive team, (s)he will also have to make new executive hires and re-energize the existing team. Find out if this CEO has hired successfully in the past and look to see if his or her team has followed them from one company to the next. A turnaround CEO must be able to quickly get buy-in on the turnaround strategy from the executive team and the board.

While the CEO’s leadership abilities are obviously key, a successful turnaround can’t happen without strong leadership at all levels of an organization. Considering time is truly of the essence, leaders need to mobilize their organizations quickly. Empowering your team and being decisive is critical.

This brings us back to the concept of board focus and engagement in order to make a successful selection, i.e. deciding what matters most. For example, a board may be strongly aligned to the current strategy of the business and resolved that performance issues are driven by operational leadership  weakness. Or it may be viewed that the business has reasonable financial leeway but that real future success will be in new growth strategies, including M&A. So the board’s collective view of the business opportunity and the accessible resources is obviously central, and may define different CEO skill focus.

As with most things leadership, what gets recognized and well communicated becomes a tool – and what isn’t recognized and communicated becomes the real threat.

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About ON Partners

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ON developed a series of experience-driven tools designed to help clients and candidates, including an executive assessment and onboarding guidetips on how to interview virtually; and a collective forecast from ON consultants about what to expect post-pandemic across several industries, including supply chain, ecommerce, private equity, telecom and telemedicine, software and life sciences.

ON Partners propels an organization’s mission by building C-level and board leadership teams. Founded in 2006 by like-minded consultants as a values-driven alternative to the multi-service global firms they were leaving behind, ON delivers a better executive search experience. Named by Forbes as one of America’s Best Executive Recruiting Firms and to the Inc. 500/5000 Lists seven times, the firm is consistently ranked among the top 20 retained executive search firms in the U.S. For more information, see our results here.

About ON Partners

Since 2006, ON Partners is the only pure-play executive search firm building diverse C-level and board leadership teams. We rebuilt the institution of executive search for the way you work. Our approach includes present partners who engage with their clients from the first brief to the final decision, individually crafted solutions that are unique to each client, and an easier experience all around. Named by Forbes as one of America’s Best Executive Recruiting Firms and to the Inc. 500/5000 Lists nine times, ON Partners is consistently ranked among the top 20 retained executive search firms in the U.S.

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