The 5 traits all CEOs share

Imagine a company with 100 middle managers, all smart, all hard-working. Who will get the plum promotion? Who will eventually land in the corner office?

There are five essentials that most CEOs share and look for in people they promote. These traits aren’t genetic, but you can develop them through attitude, habit and discipline. And they’ll make you a better leader.

1. Passionate curiosity. Asking questions like a persistent 5-year-old helps spot opportunities and understand others.

Example: Andrew Cosslett, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, says, “In business, the big prizes are found when you can ask a question that challenges the corporate orthodoxy.

“In every business I’ve worked in, there’s been a lot of cost and value locked up in things that are deemed to be ‘the way we do things around here.’ So you have to talk to people and ask them, ‘Why do you do that?’ ”

2. Battle-hardened confidence. CEOs want to know: Can you take ownership of challenges?

Example: Nancy McKinstry, chief executive of Dutch publishing company Wolters Kluwer, says, “I will ask them directly: ‘Give me an example of some adverse situation you faced, and what did you do about it, and what did you learn from it?’”

3. Team smarts. The most effective executives understand how teams work and how to get the most out of the group.

Example: When CEO George S. Barrett of Cardinal Health moved into a new role, he gauged the team smarts of his man­agers by using his peripheral vision.

As he met with a group of 40 to 50 managers, he noticed that when one executive stood up to talk, “people were riveted to him, really listening and engaged.” Not so with the other executives who stood to speak. That was a “clear signal,” he says.

4. A simple mind-set. Few things rile up CEOs more than unfocused thinking that leads to a lengthy PowerPoint presentation.

Example: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer asks his executives to send him their Power­Points before a meeting. That way, he can come to the meeting and say, “I’ve got the following four questions. Please don’t present the deck.”

5. Fearlessness. Ursula M. Burns, CEO of Xerox, defines fearlessness as “seeing an opportunity, even though things are not broken.” CEOs want people to do things, and not just what they’re told to do.

— Adapted from The Corner Office, Adam Bryant.