In my last blog, the 5 things nobody tells you about being CEO, I looked at what nobody tells you about until you get the job. I’ve learnt them from my own experience as a CEO and also from mentoring smart and successful CEOs.  What I want to do here is share my (and their) experience of what works. Here I try and address these key aspects of being CEO

1.         Who to trust? Building board relationships

As an incoming CEO you will be surrounded by people who have mixed motives. Some will want you to succeed, others may be less supportive; some will feel they should have had your job. The chairman and the board that appointed you will want you to succeed because their success is riding on your success. If you have been promoted from within, then those in the team who were your peers may also have mixed motives.  The result is that you will feel lonely, even if you do not admit this to yourself.  There are three things that you should do about this:

  • Spend time with your chairman, really get to know him or her. Understand what drives them and what their measures of success are. Make sure that you are able to meet his or her needs – and the board’s
  • Develop a good working relationship with your CFO. A good CEO and CFO partnership is tremendously powerful. One serially successful CEO I have worked with always takes his CFO with him when he moves companies.  They trust each other totally and are a formidable partnership, not least because the CFO delivers real challenge to the CEO’s thinking. If your CFO is not going to be a great partner then think about changing your CFO
  • Get a good mentor.  This is someone from outside the business who has had a business career and been in the CEO role.  They can act as a sounding board and they are on your side.  You can say things to a mentor that you cannot say to your chairman or your team and if they are a good mentor they will advise and help you.

Don’t see having a mentor as a sign of weakness – almost all great CEOs have mentors.  Good ones are expensive but they can accelerate your success.


2.         Think of yourself as an actor

You are always on stage, you’re being watched all the time. All your actions will be noted and discussed. This will lessen as people get used to you but it will never go away.  If it helps, think of yourself as an actor playing a role.  Stay in character, stay on message, look as though you know where you and the company are going.  It’s hard, but so is playing Hamlet.  One senior person I know acts as though they are always on camera.

3.         Ask questions of everyone you meet

So you got here by being an outstanding leader of sales and marketing or an outstanding CFO.  You have succeeded by concentrating on the things you are really good at.  But now things are different.  People expect you to understand a broad range of subjects because that is what you have been hired for.   So learn as fast as you can in the first few months.  Ask questions of everyone that you meet.  Ask people to explain things.  Ask your mentor. If you are new to the company it is easier.  Try to avoid making sweeping assumptions about the business in public.  If you want to make assumptions, then discuss them with your mentor first.

4.         The buck really does stop with you

One of my clients said to me “It took me a while to realise that when people said the buck stopped with me, they really meant it.” The final decisions are yours and you have to take those decisions and live with the consequences.  Do not behave like the HSBC team and look for anyone to blame but themselves. (I touched on this in an earlier blog – boards have to learn to take responsibility for their decisions and consequences). You will be kept awake at night by the decisions you have to take. The job inevitably starts to consume you.  New CEOs who have been able to leave their jobs behind when they left the office in the past, find they can no longer do that – and their families usually notice.  In a recent Ted talk, Sheryl Sandberg spoke of “making your partner your partner”.  Your family need to understand what effect your job has on you – and you and your partner need to discuss how you will deal with this.

  5.         You don’t know what you don’t know

When you start in a new job you start with all the knowledge you have about the company, the industry and the business climate.

One of the hardest things to do is to understand not what you do know but what you don’t know.  One of the few sensible things that Donald Rumsfeld ever said was his quote about “unknown unknowns”.

To understand what these are you need time to think.  As CEO there will be huge pressure on your diary and you can spend 24 hours a day doing not thinking.

Get out of the weeds, take control of your diary and find time to think, to talk to others in your industry, to read widely and to keep up with that is happening in the world.   Read (and read again) William Deresiewicz’s speech “Solitude and Leadership”. Its one of the best explanations I have read of how important solitude is for leaders.

Do any of these resonate with you?  Really happy to get some feedback on what you think.