Despite all the cultural emphasis on ‘making it to the top,’ fewer than 1% of employees actually manage to attain an executive level position. For entrepreneurs, of course, the situation is dramatically different: By virtue of being the founder of a company, many become instant CEOs--well before they gain the experience needed to succeed. 

When that happens, it’s time to take stock and look at the traits you possess or can reasonably gain that will help you grow into a great leader.  If you want your company to thrive, most of these skills need to be adopted and sharpened quickly. As with so many other things at a young company, you will need to continue to strengthen these skills, and to adopt new ones, as you go.

There are not 50 traits a person must posess, nor is there just one, but rather, there are a rare set of attributes that are common across top leaders.

This post starts a series on the characteristics that define a CEO. These characteristics are not a function of age, education or experience. Instead, they are grounded in one’s innate sense of judgment, self-control, and insight.

Superior Issue Discernment and Listening Skills

In law school, students spend a lot of time on “issue spotting.” This exercise helps them pull out the critical issues in a conflict. In business, this ability is equally important. Listening carefully, identifying the issues at hand and leading their resolution will consistently put you ahead of the pack.

Issue identification is only the first step. Once the issue is identified, a budding CEO needs to move quickly to identify the root cause of the problem. Framing these root causes in a way that enables others to appreciate them, then determining the best way to resolve them, are also requisite skills for leaders. Usually, you can’t fix things yourself. You need consensus, or at least some acknowledgement that there’s a problem, before you can fix it.

One of the reasons leaders must be good listeners is that employees hardly ever complain about basic issues. Instead, issues surface in a number of different guises:

  • Colleagues will complain about co-workers and customers when they are really unhappy with the role they or someone else is playing
  • Flaws in process and communication are usually surfaced as complaints about individuals fulfilling their duties (or not).
  • A complaint that sounds personal is often about a procedural or organizational conflict inherent in the unsatisfied employee’s job description.

Listening helps you cut through the spin, personal agendas and noise that accompany the airing of any problem. Asking the right questions will help you understand what motivates a particular employee and what is driving them to make a complaint. Somehow, you need to see the issue from their perspective. Only then will you be able to understand the broader organizational issue that may be causing or exacerbating the problem.

If you want to be in the 1%, issue spotting through listening is a critical skill.