10 Leadership Traits Every CX Leader Needs

We’ve been saying it for years: Customer Experience (CX) must be treated as a transformational organizational objective in order to compete and thrive in the experience economy. And seemingly, the message has been received; our research shows that 88 percent of leaders cite better customer experiences over the next five years as “extremely important.”

So they’ve hired or promoted you as their CX leader, and armed you with varying degrees of resources and authority. Your organization talks a big CX talk, and you’ve gotten a few CX points on the board, but as the stakes have raised, you’ve likely stalled.

You’re not alone in the breakdown lane for CX. Just 7 percent of CX initiatives have created competitive differentiation and only 23 percent have realized tangible benefits (CustomerThink, March 2018). The majority have failed because they’ve been treated as siloed one-time initiatives as opposed to transformational organizational objectives.

However, you may not have the authority to transform your organization by directive and you don’t actually have to in order to spur a CX movement. Starting with an understanding of who you are and a recognition of the world around you, you can identify, find or grow everything you need - right where you stand.

From our work in partnering with CX leaders across hundreds of organizations, we have distilled the critical strengths that successful CX leaders consistently demonstrate. Each leadership strength exists on a spectrum, balanced by an opposing strength that’s equally positive. These yin-yang combinations form a “strength pair” that the best CX leaders can leverage and deploy at any and all times.

Great CX leaders share the characteristics of great transformational leaders. They align diverse stakeholders and requirements; they listen, imagine, and bring to life new ideas. Yet even the greatest leaders aren’t whole brained and balanced; instead they are skilled at leveraging and complimenting their strengths through others.

What does this look like in practice? We’ve collected our favorite examples of groundbreaking partnerships that drove transformative success by leaning on their complementary counterparts.



Plan.................................. Act

Consensus Builder.......Decisive



A visionary leader . . .

Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner was the organization’s visionary leader. Those who were lucky to work with him describe the experience as nothing short of electric. He applauded the best ideas, built on them, and went into excruciating detail to make sure the creative vision carried through everything.

. . . needs a practical lieutenant.

But nothing came to life without then-COO Frank Wells. Once Eisner gave an idea the green light, Wells focused on the business, dictating where to invest, how to carry out the tasks, and over what time frame to make the business proposition work.

A leader with a plan . . .

Though the basis of their friendship was technology, according to Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs did not contribute to the technical development of the Apple I or Apple II – the products that put Apple on the map.

. . . needs someone who can act on it.

Jobs turned Wozniak’s brilliant tinkering into a business. He secured a $50,000 order from a local computer store for 100 units of the Apple I, enabling Wozniak to optimize the computer with color graphics and a keyboard – the Apple II.

And in 1976, it was Jobs who sold the idea of the Apple II as the first real home computer to venture capitalist Mike Markkula, who put up $250,000 for Apple to build 1,000 units.

A decisive leader . . .

Before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg away from Google to be his COO, they spent three months figuring out if they would be the right business partners.

“Mark and I didn’t agree on a lot of substantive things at that point,” Sandberg told LinkedIn co-founder and chairman Reid Hoffman for an episode of his podcast “Masters of Scale” in 2017. “And Dave (Sandburg’s late husband, Dave Goldberg) told me, ‘Don't work any of those out. You never will.’ He said, ‘What you want from Mark is process agreement on how you will work things out. Because even if you work out all the questions you have now, they’re going to change.”

. . . needs a consensus builder.

Armed with a process for working with the decisive Zuckerberg, Sandberg brilliantly applied consensus and relationship building to expand Facebook internationally, partnered with large advertisers, and infused her voice into Facebook’s communications and public policy.

A persistent leader . . .

At the start of each year’s annual planning process at Coca-Cola, then-president Doug Ivester would send out a note laying out his expectations. To reinforce the importance of consistency and follow-through, he would attach the notes he’d sent in each of the previous three years.

. . . needs a flexible partner.

At one meeting, he said, “We need to be consistent.” Then-chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman replied, “Well, I’m inconsistent and proud of it.”

Despite reportedly fiery tension between them, the duo successfully matched Ivester’s dogged perseverance and consistency with Zyman’s customer centricity.

A leader adept at promotion . . .

It’s possible that no CEO ever loved a flashy, on-stage opportunity more than Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer. And while it made him an easy target for media scrutiny, his “big, brash and bullish” personality helped him triple revenues and double profits for Microsoft over his 13 years as CEO.

. . . can achieve balance through humility.

Microsoft looked to the other end of the spectrum with current CEO Satya Nadella. In his book, Hit Refresh, Nadella wrote, “It’s our ability to work together that makes our dreams believable and, ultimately, achievable. The key to the culture change was individual empowerment.”

In just four years, Nadella has generated more than $250 billion in market value – more value growth over that time than Uber, Airbnb, Netflix and Spotify.

As a CX leader, your opportunity is to deliver on the great hope of CX in an imperfect cultural and organizational structure. Doing that well doesn’t require individual perfection, but instead the ability to truly understand your perspective, approach, resolve, and personal connection style, and to acquire and grow in the gaps. Find the yin to your yang, lead where you stand, and start a journey towards customer centricity from wherever you may be.