The best chief executives take measured risks in order to pursue innovation but never lose sight of what their customers really want, says the chairman of professional services firm Deloitte.

Commenting on the 2019 CEO of the Year finalists for Deloitte's top 200 awards, Ross Milne says we are living in an age of continuous disruption; and yet, the best CEOs are "undisruptable".

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"What this means in practice is that CEOs are charged not just with exploiting the current business model and creating efficiencies, but also inspiring innovation and taking pioneering risks in order both to meet and surpass the pace of change."

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"Just as important is the acknowledgement that failure is inevitable – the best CEOs encourage taking measured risks as part of their company culture."

Sanford's Volker Kuntzsch, Skellerup's David Mair and Mercury's departing Fraser Whineray have been named as finalists in the category.

Volker Kuntzsch, chief executive of Sanford.
Volker Kuntzsch, chief executive of Sanford.

Milne says truly innovative CEOs adopt a beginner's mind-set by asking questions about everything - including the things they already know.

This way CEOs can garner diverse perspectives to help find patterns and new opportunities, he says.

"Innovative CEOs are also good listeners. They don't hold any aspect of their business to be above criticism. This allows them to genuinely question everything, and thus innovate in the process.

"Finally, top CEOs also take the time to truly understand their customers – their habits, desires and concerns."

Hamish Miles, ServiceNow country manager New Zealand, said good CEO's provide great leadership and are purpose driven.

"What you're seeing now and from the likes of [our CEO] John Donahoe is value driven, purpose driven organisations.

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"And in our case [it's] about being customer centric, walking in the customers shoes, making sure they are getting the benefits of the services you're offering."

So what should companies look for when they hire a new CEO? How do the best CEOs differ from the average ones?

Taking measured risks is one thing but good CEOs must also fully embrace their organisation's purpose, values and culture, Milne says.

"Not only paying lip service to these ideas but driving genuine action around them in every single level of their organisation."

Having a good relationship with their board of directors is also extremely important. Australia's recent banking Royal Commission demonstrated this and there are other examples in New Zealand in recent times.

All too often, boards have minimal influence on strategy, says Milne.

"It's up to the CEO to cultivate a strong board relationship, deriving as much value as possible by offering boards carefully curated and transparent information on the business."

Skellerup CEO David Mair.
Skellerup CEO David Mair.

Bouncing back from failure is another important trait.

"Accepted wisdom is that you should use failures as an opportunity for self-reflection – analysing what went wrong and how not to do it next time. However, this doesn't really go deep enough.

"Great CEOs are the ones who explore all the options open to them, thereby reframing failure as an opportunity to learn and innovate."

Deloitte Top 200 Awards were established in 1990 and are held annually to recognise and applaud outstanding individual and management team performances among New Zealand's largest companies and trading organisations.

Last year's winner for the CEO award was Russel Creedy, of Restaurant Brands.

All the Deloitte Top 200 winners will be revealed at a gala event being held at Auckland's Spark Arena on December 5.

Tickets can be bought here.

The evening will also include two special awards – "Visionary Leader" and "Executive of the Decade" announced on the night. Click here for a full list of finalists.

CEO of the Year finalists – Sponsored by Deloitte and Service Now

• Sanford's Volker Kuntzsch
• Skellerup's David Mair
• Mercury's Fraser Whineray