Key Skills to Look for When Hiring a CEO

CEO - Glowing Neon Sign on stonework wall

Whether you’re a small business hiring a CEO for the first time, or you’re an established firm looking for someone new to lead the organization, a Chief Executive is one of the most important hires you’ll likely ever make. This person sets the tone for the company’s culture, which affects the entire organization from the top down. Their values and vision shape the company, having a major influence on its goals and strategy. 

Some CEOs, like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook/Meta, and Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway, serve as the face of their company in the public eye, acting as a mouthpiece and figurehead for the organization. Other CEOs prefer to keep a lower profile, leaving the public-facing duties to different members of leadership while steering the organization in less conspicuous but equally impactful ways.

How to Hire a CEO

The CEO will act as the company’s fearless captain, steering the proverbial ship in both smooth and stormy seas. Since they’re typically the highest-paid executive in an organization, hiring a new one usually generates a good amount of industry buzz. The right selection can bring enormous value to a firm, while the wrong one can spell disaster. Thus, you want to take every measure to make sure you choose the perfect person for the job. 

1. Allow ample time

The hiring process for a CEO typically takes several months. In some cases, you might need to fill the leadership role unexpectedly or urgently, but ideally, you want to allow a long enough window of time to make an informed and not rushed decision. 

2. Assemble a hiring committee

Hiring a CEO is a process that should involve multiple decision-makers. Assemble a committee that includes all key stakeholders and some company staff. Be mindful that the people you select need to be able to be trusted to exercise discretion and keep the details of the search private. 

3. Establish sourcing requirements

When looking for a new CEO, consider candidates from within the company, such as if there is a point person in the former CEO who knows the ropes and can step seamlessly into the job. Or, you may prefer an external candidate who can bring a fresh perspective or a new set of skills to the role. Defining what you’re looking for from your new leader is a critical early step that will determine where you look for candidates. 

Executive search firms that specialize in hiring members of leadership are often brought in for expert consultation and niche sourcing capabilities. 

Related: Sample CEO Job Descriptions

4. Assess qualifications

Serving in an executive role requires qualifications different from most ordinary jobs. Whereas most roles should be filled primarily based on skills, a CEO needs a specific blend of hard and soft skills, prior experience, industry knowledge, and cultural alignment to be a strong fit. A candidate who lacks leadership experience but possesses innate vision and strong industry knowledge might shine in the CEO’s chair. That’s why assessing candidates from a holistic point of view is especially important. 

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5. Conduct interviews

Interviews for a CEO position typically take place over several days or weeks. It’s common for candidates to spend multiple days onsite at the company, meeting with different members of the hiring committee. Interviews should include questions that cover a range of topics, including but not limited to:

  • Experience
  • Motivation
  • Personality
  • Values
  • Industry trends 
  • Company positioning
  • Strategy
  • Vision
  • Organizational processes

6. Check references

For some roles, you can get away with not checking references (although we would never recommend it). This, however, is not one of those roles. CEO finalists should be vetted carefully with reference and background checks. Speak with former colleagues, managers, subordinates, and personal references to understand the person’s character and capabilities fully. 

7. Keep an open mind

CEOs can be wildly diverse in their background and experience level. The key is finding the right fit for YOUR organization. To give you a broad range of candidates to choose from, interview a mix of internal and external candidates and people with and without prior CEO experience. 

Remember that other executive team members can fill gaps in skills or expertise. For example, a dynamic candidate who lacks public-facing experience could receive PR coaching to refine their skills or hand public appearance duties off to the company’s COO. Also, consider that you may be able to meet the company’s needs with a part-time CEO or a consultant. 

Whether you’re looking for an internal or external candidate, someone who thrives in the spotlight or prefers to shy away from it, all excellent CEOs have a few standout traits in common. When hiring a CEO, look for these key skills. 

Related: The 7 Reasons Why You Should Hire an Executive Recruiter

Must-Have CEO Skills


No organization is free of problems. The CEO sets the tone for how an organization will respond to its problems and navigate tough times. A strong leader can bounce back after a setback and outline a clear path forward for the rest of the organization to follow.

Ability to delegate

Great CEOs breed great teams, and that can’t happen without lots of delegation. Rather than micromanaging, a good CEO empowers their employees to take ownership of their work. This, in turn, inspires a sense of pride in the job, contributing to a strong culture. 


Though the ability to delegate tasks is critical, a CEO also recognizes that the buck stops with them. The company’s success–and more importantly, its failures–rests on their shoulders. Look for a CEO with a proven track record of taking accountability for significant projects. You can also learn a lot about this skill by asking candidates about times they’ve dealt with failure. 

Bold thinking

The ability to innovate is a make-or-break factor for companies in today’s marketplace. More forward-thinking firms quickly overtake those that resist change. COVID-19 was a perfect example of this, with companies that failed to pivot to pandemic-friendly options like online shopping and contactless delivery and, as a result, didn’t survive. 

A strong CEO needs the vision to anticipate what’s ahead before it arrives. They must be open to new ideas and willing to try new things in an attempt to accomplish what’s never been done before. 


The best leaders rarely follow the same path others have taken before. Great CEOs have a knack for seeing solutions in the most unlikely places and forging new and creative ways forward. Creativity is closely linked with adaptability, which is another highly important CEO skill. 


It’s one thing to have big ideas; it’s another to convey them clearly to others and get people onboard with enthusiasm. The ideal CEO communicates in plain, direct language, using the appropriate tone and tactics for different groups, such as employees, stakeholders, and the public. 

They must be able to distill complex concepts down to their most important points and present them confidently. Communicating frequently is also a necessary step in building trust. 

Ability to make difficult decisions

Tough decisions are an inherent part of any leadership role. Wavering in the face of them can cause uncertainty at best and chaos at worst. 

A CEO needs to be able to make decisions that, though unpopular, are the smart choice for the company. This might include making painful cuts to ensure the firm’s future viability, letting go of employees who can’t or won’t pull their weight, or taking a controversial stance on an important issue. The right person for the job will be able to discern the right decision and make it unapologetically, even amid pushback and criticism. 


In an age where consumers’ personal data changes hands like currency, people value transparency more than ever before. Trust is paramount to the savvy customer, and companies that want to earn that trust need a leader who can walk the walk. 

A great CEO stays true to their word and follows through on promises, even when it’s inconvenient or doesn’t directly translate into more dollars and cents for the company. When mistakes are made–as they inevitably are in any successful organization–a sincere CEO owns up to them quickly and takes steps to correct them. 

An eye for talent

While most CEOs don’t have a heavy hand in hiring, the best ones can spot untapped potential when they come across it. In addition to being a company’s chief executive, they’re also its recruiter-in-chief, helping attract the best and brightest talent and using their high profile to make a positive case for working for the company. 

A good CEO can discern where fresh talent is needed–be it in product development, marketing, or on the board of directors–and use their influence to ensure the necessary hires are made. 

Relationship building

As the company’s top employee, a CEO faces the not-so-easy task of building and navigating relationships in many different areas. They must successfully interface with employees, managers, partners, vendors, customers, the community, and more. Their ability to forge meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships will bring about new opportunities and serve the company’s interests over the long haul.

Management skills

A winning CEO is also the organization’s manager-in-chief; they are accountable for each and every employee on the payroll. As such, they must be able to manage people at all levels of responsibility, coach staffers to improve their weaknesses, hone people’s strengths, and coax out their employees’ best work without burning them out. 

If all of this seems like a tall order, it’s worthwhile to note that not every CEO needs every skill. All people have weaknesses, and other key executive team members, like the COO can compensate for those of a CEO. Thus, in addition to considering a candidate’s own qualities when hiring a CEO, it’s important to also take stock of how their skills will mesh with those your leadership team already has.

Refine Your CEO Search With Help From an Expert Recruiting Team

Whether you’re just starting to look for a new CEO or you need someone to breathe new life into your search, turn to our staffing experts. Our executive search solutions will help you go deep on the qualities needed to lead your organization confidently into the future. Take the next step toward finding the perfect fit by scheduling a call with us today.

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the President of 4 Corner Resources, the staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. 4 Corner is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance, and the top-rated staffing company in Central Florida. Recent awards and recognition include being named to Forbes’ Best Recruiting Firms in America, The Seminole 100, and The Golden 100. Pete also founded zengig, to offer comprehensive career advice, tools, and resources for students and professionals. He hosts two podcasts, Hire Calling and Finding Career Zen, and is blazing new trails in recruitment marketing with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn