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5 essential tools for a first-time CEO

Boardroom veteran David Roche offers key strategies that can lay the groundwork for CEO success.
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Key Takeaways
  • The expectation that new CEOs should arrive with “all the answers” should be challenged.
  • With the right strategy first-time CEOs can lead with confidence and create clarity for their teams.
  • Essential tools for first-time CEOs include transition planning, active listening, and a combination of coaching and mentoring.

We all learn from our mistakes (eventually) but sometimes it would be nice to get it right the first time. Looking back from the more experienced end of my career, and having played most of the major roles around a boardroom table, I now have a good deal more clarity about what is required — and how I might have done things better back then. It’s much easier to see what other people should do in certain difficult situations than it is to realize what the best options are when it’s you who needs them. The benefit of hindsight gives you that third-person perspective but what could have been done at the time to improve things?

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Here, I outline the five most important tools required by a leader and first-time CEO to ensure they feel confident and fully equipped to set up themselves — and their organization — for success. Being a first-time CEO is a uniquely challenging task. By implementing these strategies, new Chief Execs can lead with confidence, and create clarity for their teams.

#1. Embrace your abilities as a generalist and gain confidence

When promoted to the top job for the first time, it’s only natural to have doubts about your ability to succeed in the role. Specialists feel they lack the general management skills to run a company — many scientific industries have traditionally promoted their most able technicians into senior executive roles without providing the necessary management training. General managers feel they lack the specialist skills needed in a particular industry, but that’s not really a problem. Being a generalist is a specialist skill in itself.

Learning genuine confidence will make all the difference. Seven out of ten leaders have doubts about their experience and skills, and most new CEOs don an armor of confidence to give the impression that they are in control and have all the answers. However, it’s the expectation that they should have all the answers that is both incorrect and a major factor that results in doubts in the first place.

A CEO needs to have the best questions. True confidence is when there is an admission that they do not have all the answers and they involve their teams in coming up with them.

#2. Don’t wait until you have been given the stripes

We all have the ability to improve our luck. We need to be able to identify an opportunity when it appears and always be prepared to take advantage of it when it arrives. You don’t need to be given a title or position to demonstrate your leadership abilities. When you are being interviewed for your first CEO role, everyone on the shortlist is likely capable of doing the role to a reasonable extent. The question is less “Can they do it?” and more “Can they be trusted to do it?”. There is plenty that you can do in advance to build the evidence for the latter.

What a boss wants to see is the rising stars stepping up — and into — more senior roles as part of their development, rather than as a result of formal promotion. As CEO, they may have a problem with particular projects or operations where the aspiring candidate can step in to take up some of the slack and provide leadership without the necessity of having the stripes on their shoulders. Demonstration of capability that they can do the job may help clinch it, and that is more difficult to see at the time than it sounds.

There is no guarantee that you will be told what to do or what is expected of you. Don’t wait to be given the keys to show that you can drive.

#3. Ensure you are involved in planning your transition

A proper transition to a first-time CEO role sounds like an essential thing to do. However, McKinsey estimates that $1 trillion of market value is lost from S&P’s top 1500 companies in the US every year as a result of poorly managed CEO and C-Suite transitions. Induction and transition are two different things. Why wouldn’t everyone do their utmost to ensure that the person filling the most important position in the company is given the optimum support to succeed in the role? No wonder it’s lonely at the top.

Harvard Business Review states that four out of ten new CEOs fail and are gone in 18 months. The lack of careful planning for the transition is one of the major reasons for this, and the inability of the new CEO to forge the key relationships that they need is often the result. These relationships decide whether the CEO succeeds or not, from the bond with the Chair and the Board, which needs to be one of equals, to the Senior Leadership Team and the wider organization. 

Change is the new norm and the CEO sets the culture and values which will define how change is embraced and exploited.

#4. Communicate, communicate, communicate

This is most definitely two-way and ongoing. Active listening is a learned skill and is dramatically different from waiting for your turn to speak. This is not just for the honeymoon period when you take over as CEO, though clearly, it’s an essential part of it. Companies go through change on an ongoing basis and the key is about how your people adapt and embrace change, and this alters; what people thought last week about what was happening might be very different next week. 

It’s critical to keep checking in to ensure everyone is on board, or at least that you know where everyone stands. For example, how you encourage and react to risk-taking, particularly when it doesn’t work out, will have an enormous impact on how change will be handled next time. Your ability to keep your eye on the big picture and how you communicate with everyone in the company is vitally important. Keep communicating regularly. Paranoia and conspiracy theories love a vacuum and thrive without clear, honest and regular communication.

#5. Get an independent, professional coach and mentor

Coaching is essential rather than “nice to have.” When done well, the combination of coaching and mentoring adds another dimension.

A few years ago, I enrolled in a freediving course to learn how to dive without an air tank. I definitely wanted and needed to be told what to do by an expert, but I also needed to have my limiting beliefs removed in order to imagine — and truly believe — that I actually could do it. Within three hours I was holding my breath underwater for three-and-a-half minutes, and a day later I was freediving down to 20 meters. This result was, to me, staggering — even if it was, as I was told, typical for people who go through the same course. I have found first-hand that in business this powerful blend of coaching and mentoring can deliver staggering results too.

Coaching brings out the best in people and mentoring from an experienced head helps when a shortcut is beneficial or a wrong path needs to be avoided: CEOs are busy people. The critical element is the independence. Coaching needs to be risk-free, unconditional, and solely there to support the new CEO — at all times.

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