Author: David Kincaid, Founder and Managing Partner
Few professional experiences can be as exciting and overwhelming as taking on the CEO role for the first time. Everything changes in unexpected ways; it’s not about climbing the next rung on the ladder, it’s a quantum leap into a new reality. Brand new CEOs need all the practical, impartial and time-tested advice they can get – the select few who can actually say, “Been there, done that.”
We have put together the top 10 “lessons learned” in building your personal brand as the new CEO. We hope you find this helpful.
1. Engage the Board as a Strategic Partner
Boards today need to own strategic decisions jointly with the CEO; they no longer simply anoint them at an annual off-site. The CEO must keep the board engaged in the same way that business units are expected to engage the CEO. Do only what only a CEO can do. With so many tasks vying for attention the CEO must focus on shaping the company’s definition of success, breaking the frame (for example by changing some fundamental aspect of the company’s business model), resetting expectations, and integrating the company parts with the whole.
2. Move Faster, Drive Harder
In hindsight, most CEOs wish that within their first six months in the job they had narrowed their agenda and quickened their pace. They wish they had selected very few high impact organizational priorities, stayed thoroughly focused on them, and then driven them to completion with a relentless sense of urgency.
3. Set the Tone of what’s Important
Do something concrete that makes a difference to profitability. It establishes your value-add and even more importantly, sets a tone of what is important to you. Not process, not perception, but rather performance and that you hold yourself to the same standard of adding value in a measurable way.
4. You are the Company’s Face to the World
Most executives spend years learning how to manage what goes on inside the company. But the moment they become CEO, they need to make a quick pivot and turn much of their attention to the outside world – not just customers, but investors, shareholders, analysts and the media. It’s almost like learning a whole new job – including some critical lessons on what you can and can’t say, when, and to whom.
5. Find a few people to Confide in
Most CEOs say the cliché is true: It’s an inherently lonely job. As early as you can, identify a select group of confidants, coaches and trusted advisors, including some incumbent or retired CEOs. Every CEO needs some safe outlets – people with whom they can be candid, seek advice, admit to uncertainty, and just let their hair down once in a while.
6. Don’t get distracted by flattery and happy talk
As one CEO advised another, “The moment word gets out that you’re going to be the CEO, your jokes suddenly are funnier, your wife is prettier and your kids are smarter.” Be prepared for how differently people treat you – starting with their reluctance to be the bearer of bad news. Be persistent; get beyond the smoke and smiles and discover what’s actually going on inside the organization.
7. Stop doing your old job
All new CEOs have to establish their own leadership identity – but that’s particularly hard for those promoted internally, who must quickly achieve the requisite escape velocity to be viewed as “a boss, not a buddy.” Start by identifying the specific things you did in your previous jobs that you will now delegate and distance yourself from – even if you’re convinced you can still do them better than anyone else!
8. It’s all about leading through teams
New CEOs quickly bump up against the limits of their personal influence, and come to understand the necessity of leading through others. It starts with your senior team; if they aren’t 120% aligned – with you and with each other – there is no way your influence will extend past the first row of offices. Make no assumptions, push for clarity from them and ensure everyone “is visibly dancing to the same music and willing to shape the culture.” In large companies, the CEO has to quickly figure out how to keep hundreds of managers reading from the same page and the leadership team is key to accomplishing this.
9. Getting the Culture working with you
As you prepare for and then begin the new job, broaden your perspective beyond strategy, operations and finance to understand that one of the CEO’s greatest opportunities – and challenges – is to manage and, if necessary, change the organization’s culture and social dynamics. Successful and sustainable execution of strategy requires a culture that enables and supports the strategy. Many CEOs have failed because the culture “ate their strategy for breakfast”! That begins with understanding what the culture actually is, versus what people say it is. Then connect the company’s strategy to everyone – connect the dots for them so they can see their role in helping achieve your goals. And when communicating, repeat and repeat again the key themes… and then repeat again!
10. Don’t drag your feet on the tough talent decisions
Pushing a new agenda is impossible without the right people in the right jobs. By far, the most common specific regret acknowledged by first-time CEOs is that they didn’t act faster to remove people in key roles who lacked the necessary skill or commitment. With the best of intentions, new CEOs often delay the difficult moves far too long, at great cost to the organization and to the dismay of top performers. New CEOs – and in particular, those from the outside, who are still learning who’s who – need to gather information quickly, seek the best available advice, trust their instincts and then make a decision.