September 3

Mastering the CEO learning curve

“I’m an excellent functional/operational leader, but in the CEO role I need to become a strategic/transformational leader.”

This is the kind of comment I often hear from clients who have recently taken on the CEO role, and they’re right. The CEO role is a move out of the comfort zone of functional leadership or business unit management, and it opens up a whole new set of stakeholders, pressures, decisions and responsibilities.

No wonder that even the most accomplished leader can be hit with imposter syndrome, and even the most confident individual can start to question whether they have what it takes.
Whilst taking on the role of CEO is the beginning of a whole new journey, I’ve found that there are three key things that will make a huge difference in those first quarters.


1. Balancing the operational and the strategic: ‘CEO focus’

The tension for the CEO is this: there are many pressing operational concerns and short-term deliverables to achieve, but the bigger game is setting up the business for sustained success and the achievement of the longer-range vision.

The short-term is an obvious pull for many onboarding CEOs. The CEO is keen to demonstrate their value-add and make an immediate impact, and achieving quick operational wins is familiar ground. The risk is that the more you intervene directly in operational issues, the less empowered and motivated the wider team will feel. And the greater the risk that you get lost in the weeds.

At the same time, there’s a whole new set of levers available to you in the “CEO cockpit”, and the most powerful ones are indirect. Impactful CEOs create the conditions that will help others make the right choices:

  • Setting and communicating strategy
  • Putting sound processes in place
  • Selecting and mentoring key leaders
  • Etc.

So there’s a real dilemma: driving operational execution (with this risk of getting stuck in the weeds or disempowering the team) or working on possibly slower-burn “system-level interventions” in service of the longer term.

Building CEO focus, then, is clarifying how you’ll make best use of your limited time and attention, so that your short-term commitments are met whilst making progress on the strategic moves that set the organisation up for long-term success. 

2. Establishing credibility: ‘CEO presence’

The first few months will set the tone for your leadership. You have the title, but you now need to establish the right to lead and earn the loyalty of the organisation.

As CEO, all eyes are on you. Is your vision clear and convincing? Are you demanding obedience, or eliciting commitment? Are you serving the organisation, or pleasing yourself? Is the business safe in your hands?

In such a visible role, building your “CEO presence” is key. CEO presence is a short hand for winning hearts and minds; for demonstrating the character, competency and charisma that befits such an elevated leadership role.

This doesn’t mean hiring spin doctors to manipulate your image. It doesn’t mean pretending to be a super-hero: omniscient, omnipotent. Instead, it means doing the deep work so you’re leading from a place of service rather than ambition, fear or people-pleasing. And it means paying real attention to how you conduct yourself in every interaction.

“I’m an excellent functional/operational leader, but in the CEO role I need to become a strategic/transformational leader.”

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We all have habits and tendencies that tend to undermine our influence and impact. As CEO, these “influence leaks” that didn’t matter so much at lower levels can become more detrimental.

For example, one recently promoted tech CEO I worked with was inadvertently undermining his influence by repeat signalling to his employees that he wasn’t a tech expert. This wasn’t a conscious act; these were just throw-away comments, and the reality was that he had a perfectly strong industry understanding. However, these comments were starting to undermine his credibility in his heavily engineer-led organisation.

Another client, Kirsten, was appreciated for being a collaborative and facilitative leader, but her unwillingness to step in to unresolved management team debates and make and stick to a decision was undermining her influence as CEO. It was draining the organisation’s belief and momentum around the core transformation project that she was championing. We fixed it; but if we’d left that longer it would have become a real problem.

Developing CEO presence, then, is how you establish credibility and build trust and loyalty across the business.

3. Managing stakeholders: ‘CEO conversations’

As CEO, you have a complex and interdependent system of stakeholders to manage, and there will be real tensions and competing demands upon you made by these groups.

The weak CEO will people-please, over-promise, and over-rotate to the stakeholders who are screaming the loudest (often investors). Whilst investors are a key constituency, defining one’s goal as shareholder approval may not be in the company’s best interest. As Michael Porter pointed out, actions and strategies favoured by shareholders may not benefit the ultimate competitive position of the company.

No one said it would be easy! At the end of the day, the board—not the CEO—is in charge, despite the fact that many members will have limited knowledge of the company’s industry.
However, your job is to be a leader, not a people-pleaser, and so your job is to win the hearts and minds of all your different stakeholders and enrol them into a shared understanding of the way forward for the best interest of the firm.

How do you do this? One critical conversation at a time.

The new CEO’s world is filled with critical stakeholder discussions to secure support for your vision and plans. The danger is these conversations aren’t given enough preparation, or the discussions are actually postponed, simply because there’s plenty of other (easier) tasks to be getting on with.

Nailing these ‘CEO conversations’ is a make-or-break activity for the new chief executive, as you influence and secure support across the stakeholder ecosystem.

Engaging with the CEO learning curve

I’ve written a 3-part email series that goes into more detail on the transition to CEO, and how you can practically sharpen your CEO focus, solidify your CEO presence and master your CEO conversations.

My hope is that it will help you transform the first few quarters in the CEO role.

I’d be happy to send it to you if relevant. It’ll only be a fit if you’re actually a CEO (or CEO-elect) of an established business, and if you’re interested in building a sustainable and purposeful enterprise.

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