Advice for Rising to the Challenge of CEO

The experience of being a CEO for the first time comes with many challenges, the biggest perhaps is adjusting to the role itself.

Our new study, Exchanges16 “Expect the Unexpected,” explores the experiences of rookie CEOs.

Based on in-depth conversations with 75 CEOs around the world, the findings capture what the CEOs wished they’d known before stepping into the role while also compiling their advice for those who are preparing for, or aspiring to take on, the role.

This first report includes six core themes from our findings. They are summarized below and include a preview comment from the CEOs we interviewed.

Under each section there is also a link to an external source as suggested food for thought on the topic.

1. The Challenge of the Board

Many CEOs were astonished at how time-consuming and energy-sapping dealing with their Board was. They had to engage with the politics of the Board collectively as well as with Board members individually. This set much of the tone for how the Board engaged with the CEO.

“I was least prepared for dealing with the Board. There was no way to be prepared. And I had been on the Board!”

Additional food for thought.

2. The Master and Apprentice Paradox

For first-time CEOs, the first few months are paradoxical. They are expected to have the answers—to be the “master” the organization requires at the same time they are serving their apprenticeship. All while not knowing what they don’t know, or need to know, about the role itself.

“When I became CEO I kept doing the things that got me there. I soon realized that what got me there wasn’t going to keep me there. I had a lot of learning to do and I found I was a student without a teacher. That was an awakening.” 

Additional food for thought.

3. The Weight of Conscience

Our study found that for the vast majority of CEOs, the best part of the job was their ability to make a positive impact on people’s lives.

The worst part was the weight they felt when things didn’t go well, and the staff and their families were negatively affected.

“The most emotionally draining and mentally taxing role I’ve had—in both a good and bad sense. It can be euphoric one day and crushing the next. It is important to find balance for your own well being.” 

Additional food for thought.

4. Alone in a Crowd

There is another paradox about the role of CEO; interviewees told us that they felt both isolated and the center of attention at the same time.

The sense of isolation is well-known and well-researched. Our interviewees told us it is partly due to the fact that they can not be sure the agenda of colleagues is pure and in the best interests of the organization.

“You walk into a room and the last two seats that anyone will sit in are the ones next to you.” 

Additional food for thought.

5. The Power of Creative Expression

Many assume that CEOs love the power of the role, that they enjoy being in charge and wielding their authority. However, we found something different; one of the greatest joys about being the CEO, our interviewees said, is being able to express themselves almost like an artist with the organization as the canvas. It is NOT about the wielding of power, or basking in the perception others have of the CEO being the most powerful player in the business.

“The organization follows your lead…strategically, culturally…you set the direction and the tone.” 

Additional food for thought.

6. The Myth of Control

Those who are not CEOs usually make assumptions about the CEO being in complete control. The CEO is talked of as the boss, the one person in charge. They are seen as having control over any and all situations. However, we were told this is not so for two reasons: 1) organizational politics, and 2) time vampires.

“You would think that as the CEO you could put a stop to all the politics, agendas and in-fighting…not only can you not stop it, it seems to intensify…you become the lightening rod.”

Additional food for thought.

The first time CEO faces more pressure and scrutiny from employees, shareholders, boards, and customers than ever before. At the same time, Exchanges16 found that they feel much more unprepared and isolated than expected; while still feeling it is the best job of their life. For the next generation of senior leaders, and those who aspire to the CEO role, much can be learned from the experiences shared by those who have “been there, done that.”

Download the study by clicking here.


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