What every first-time CEO should know
Being named CEO may be the next step of your successful career. But don’t underestimate how different the job will be from anything you’ve done before.
The stakes are higher and more complex. And your prior experience could actually hinder you if you’re used to having hands-on control or being the expert in a given area.
To help master your new role, you’ll need to re-envision how you see yourself, how you view others and what your main objectives are.
Everyone is watching, listening and waiting
From the moment your appointment is announced, people will perceive you differently.
” Your actions and statements matter so much more, ” said Mitzi Reaugh , who was recently promoted to CEO of augmented reality technology firm Jaunt XR, after being with the company for two years.
When she learned she would be named CEO, Reaugh felt pressured by colleagues to quickly make a call: Should they announce her appointment with other organizational changes at one big company meeting and not give leaders a heads up? Or did she want to talk one-on-one with key managers and hold smaller meetings first?
” I wanted to look decisive but also make the right call for the organization. I also wanted my colleagues (who would soon become my direct reports) to feel like their opinions were heard and considered. Would I look weak if I didn’t make the right call right then? Would I alienate a key colleague? I took a deep breath and that’s when I said I would think about it overnight, ” Reaugh said.
The next day she opted for the second approach.
Reaugh recommends all first-timers give themselves the space to do the same because your early decisions and how you communicate them will set the tone from the outset. And, she said, ” as a CEO, you have to own the choices you make each day, so it’s important you truly believe you’re making the right call. ”
Information you get may not be as reliable as before
Everyone, including those you have worked with for years, may start to behave differently.
” The power imbalance changes the way people present themselves [to you]. Understand the information you get from them is no longer reliable in the same way, ” said Eric Pliner , himself a first-time CEO of the leadership consulting firm YSC .
Not that they’re trying to mislead you. They just may not feel comfortable being as frank as they might be with a peer or lower level manager.
Don’t just lean on direct reports to tell you what’s going on
At first, you’re likely to spend most of your time with your executive team. But you’ll eventually need to meet others in the company to get a better sense of what’s really going on.
” Avoid being a prisoner of the people reporting to you, ” said Jay Lorsch , a professor at Harvard Business School who long taught at the university’s workshop for new CEOs.
At the same time, Pliner recommends not being too accessible to the rank and file because you have to make clear you’re not part of the equation on day-to-day matters.
” You need to set your next tier of leaders up for success. People should be going to them, ” he said.
Get your executive team right
Among your most important first moves is to ” contract and calibrate ” your relationships with direct reports, Pliner said.
In other words, set expectations for how you want to work together — e.g., let them know how often you’ll want updates in the first few months and offer context as to why.
Also give them a little time to figure out how they see themselves as part of this next chapter.
Because you must figure out if you have the right members on your team. Do they each bring what you need to execute your strategy? Do you trust them? Do you work well with each of them? Does everyone work well with each other?
If the answer is no to any of these questions, you’ll need to replace at least some people. That doesn’t mean firing anyone right away. But don’t wait a year to see how they’ll work out either.
” It just gets more complicated the longer you wait, ” Lorsch said.
Get your relationship with the board right
You may be top dog in the eyes of the world. But in fact you report to the board, which is a ” complicated organ, ” Lorsch said. ” No one has any experience dealing with it until you have to deal with it. In the end, though, the board is the ultimate authority. ”
You’ll need to invest time building rapport with individual members and learning what their expectations are. That could mean regular contact with the chairman or lead director and perhaps monthly calls with other members, Pliner said.
You’ll also want to offer more details early on about what bold moves you plan to make in the first 12 to 18 months, said Rod Walker, a managing director at Kotter , a change management consulting firm.
In any presentation you make to the board, ” always frame it around four things, ” Walker said. What are the pillars of the strategy you’re trying to execute? What have you accomplished so far? What roadblocks have been in your way? And what help do you need from the board to achieve your vision?
Also, he added, don’t be afraid to recommend pulling back on initiatives the board has already approved if you think they’re not paying off.
Making a big change is good. Changing everything at once isn’t.
You may have promised a new strategic, structural or cultural change. But trying to do everything at once could backfire.
” Don’t do it overnight. The ability to stomach change is limited, ” Pliner said. ” So choose the biggest thing with the biggest impact, rather than lots of smaller changes. ”
Prioritize what you want to handle personally
Everyone will want everything from you all the time. But don’t forget you’re human.
” The limiting factor is your time and your attention. So figure out what you want to focus on personally and what you will delegate to others, ” Lorsch said.
Find a good sounding board
There will be times when you feel unsure about how to proceed on something. And it may be complicated to admit that to someone in the company or on the board.
That’s why Pliner recommends creating your own personal board of advisers for guidance.
It could be friends and professionals outside your industry who you trust.
It might be an executive coach.