One of my roles is mentoring chief executives of businesses and other organisations. They are smart, hard working, experienced. They have finally got to the top of the organisation or they may have been brought in from outside. If they are new to the CEO role then I can guarantee one thing – they won’t be ready for it. They have got to this point in their career by knowing a lot about a small number of things. The problem with being a CEO is that you need to know a lot about a lot of things. More importantly you will discover five things that nobody tells you until you get the job:
1. It is very lonely at the top
If there is one topic that comes up again and again in my work with senior leaders it is the issue of loneliness. It is not always put in those terms, partly because to admit to loneliness can be seen as a sign of weakness. If you are new to the organisation the only people you will know are the people who interviewed you – the Chairman, some members of the Board, maybe some members of the Exec team. You have been appointed because they believe in your competence. The problem is that you may not entirely share this belief. You are going up a very steep learning curve and there will be a lot of things you don’t know.
If you have been promoted from within then you face a different problem which is the need to distance yourself from your peers and to stretch some of the bonds of comradeship that have grown up over the years.
2. You are always on stage
You are being watched all the time. However bad things are you are expected to look positive and upbeat and to clearly know where you are going. I can remember a few weeks into my first CEO role having a really bad morning – nothing to do with work, all to do with domestic logistics. I must have come in looking really grumpy and before long there was a rumour going around that it was because we were not going to make our numbers for that month (totally untrue).
3. You are expected to know everything
So you got here by being an outstanding leader of sales and marketing or an outstanding finance director. You have succeeded by concentrating on the things you are really good at. Now you are expected to have a broad grasp of everything the company does. If you are new to the company then you will get an induction period but that will be factual. It is unlikely to cover all of the other things you are expected to know.
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 that means that the job inevitably starts to consume you. New CEOs often find that they can no longer leave their jobs behind when they leave the office – and quite often their families notice.
5. You don’t know what you don’t know
I was once faced with a brand new CEO in a telecoms business. Almost his first piece of analysis was “you know this is very much like the airline business”. I said that I could see some similarities but he should reserve judgement until he knew more. The problem was he had come from the airline business and was hunting for intellectual models that would help him understand another complex business. As a new CEO it is often hard to know what information is important. There is the obvious – the numbers, the customers, your employees, the other major stakeholders – but which is the most important? Where do you allocate your time and where are the real risks? Do you understand the current business enough to lead the strategy for a future business? The risk of jumping to unhelpful conclusions is significant.
Do any of these resonate with you? In my next blog I will look at strategies and approaches that can help with these. Would love any experiences you can share to include in this.