Advice for First Time CEOs

It’s your first day as a new CEO and everyone is looking at you. Many eyes are scrutinising your every word, the actions to which they will lead and the implications your leadership will have on their jobs and the direction of the business. How do you prepare for such a challenge? Criticaleye called on the collective wisdom of a number of current and former CEOs from within the Community to share what they wish they had known when they first took on the role.

As a first-time CEO, you should first accept that you will not be prepared for what the job feels like when you put it on. But you will need to back yourself and be ready to demonstrate your leadership. You will need to have a clear strategy that you plan to communicate early-on: who you are, what you stand for and in what direction you want to take the organisation. You’ll also need to find the right opportunity, at the right time, to demonstrate that you are now in charge.

Brendan Hynes, CEO of Nichols plc, explains: “The reality of the role, on paper, is actually very similar to the role I thought it was. The biggest difference when I became CEO was its feel. An analogy might be that, having read the book, someone was now asking me to produce the play – it feels quite different.”

Based on in-depth discussions with the Criticaleye Community, we have concluded that first-time CEOs should keep the following mantras close by – particularly as you look to exceed in your first day, the next 99 days and beyond:

  • Expect the unexpected
  • Build the right team
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Don’t forget you are visible all the time
  • Have a support network
  • Believe in what you do with a passion
  • Establish yourself and the relationships you have with key stakeholders early-on
  • Ensure that your have reliable and accurate information to hand
  • Be sensitive to what your board and your shareholders are telling you
  • Don’t approach stakeholders and over promise on what you can deliver
  • Be wary of advisors, especially brokers, and remember that they’re not always right
  • Ensure that you keep your colleagues and customers central to your decisions
  • Make the time to enjoy the journey, and have some fun along the way

You should also get your previous role out of your mind. You must be seen to be fair, open and available to everyone. If your previous role was a functional one, then you must step away from that as well. “One of the main challenges that you have to overcome when becoming a CEO is not to spend time concentrating on your areas of expertise, in my case this was marketing,” says Helen Alexander, President of the CBI and Former CEO of The Economist Group. “As CEO, you must concentrate on the less familiar areas.”

Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC Global News and World Service, adds: “The personality that you have and the approach that you convey will be critical in the early days – first impressions count after all. The kind of person that you are, the way that you are going to go about the job, how you are going to require people to do whatever you want them to do, must be communicated straightaway.”

Steve Easterbrook, Executive Vice President of McDonald’s Corp and former CEO of McDonalds UK, points out that: “The shadow that you cast as CEO is very long indeed. This is a responsibility that you will need to take very seriously, and to understand it. The implications and repercussions of your actions in the CEO role are likely to be far more than in your previous role[s]”.

Put the right people in the right place

You first big decision as CEO is to choose who you have in your team. Be clear and honest with yourself about your own strengths and weaknesses and organise a team around you comprising the people you need and feel most comfortable with – and keep an eye on filling the gaps in your own experience and skill-set.

Rob Woodward, CEO of STV Group plc, agrees: “you need people you can trust, people that share your vision, that are passionate about delivering that vision and that can work within a team”, but he also cautions that you should not to throw the baby out with the bath water. “We ended up with an amalgamation of people who were here in the past and new people from the outside, so we benefitted from some corporate memory plus new skills, attitudes and experience from people we recruited from the outside.”

However, while you need to be swift and decisive about the people you choose for your team, you should also take ample time to consider each person’s capabilities.

Richard Laing, CEO of CDC Group plc, says: “When you realise that someone doesn’t quite fit, you need to act. In the past I have taken too long to make the decision to let them go. I also wish I’d done more thinking about the top management team, its structure and the personalities within it. Had I thought more about it, I might have done things differently. There were some tough decisions to make and I’m not sure I made the right ones.”

In addition, a good CEO is also excellent at delegation. You can’t do everything yourself, so make sure you have a team you can rely on. Indeed, as Helen points out, the most crucial part of the CEO’s team may often be overlooked: “a great PA is always essential – in this respect I was very fortunate”.

Tone from the Top

As an incoming CEO, you simply cannot do enough communicating. Sending signals from the top about ‘how it is done around here’ is critical. You must not only be out there talking to customers and employees, you must also be seen out there talking to them.

Rob says: “You must communicate, particularly when going through a period of major change. You must communicate very regularly and very openly in order to be able to bring staff along on the journey – one can never afford to lose the trust and support of the staff. Never let a communication void develop.”

Speaking of trust, bear in mind that, providing that you have the interests of the company at heart, people will generally follow you. If they doubt this, in any way, then they may not trust you.

Paul Barron, former CEO of NATS, the UK’s air traffic services provider, confirms that “you have to connect with the people who are actually doing the job – they must believe in you. You must be clear with them about where you are going and why you are going there. People will follow you if they believe in you and can relate to you. To do this, you need to be visible”.

Indeed, the role of the CEO is much more about people than you might assume. Brendan explains: “It’s all about communicating. It feels a like being the head cheerleader in our business, keeping it on track. A lot of it is unspoken, but the core is keeping everyone going in the same direction. It’s important to make sure everyone thinks that they are critical to the plan.”

Helen offers that this is not just one-way communication – the role demands a good listener: “as a CEO, you need to keep accessible and keep in touch. You must listen hard in order to interpret what people in the organisation are telling you.”

The Buck Stops with You

Once at the top, few individuals can truly be used as a sounding board. You are now the public face of your organisation and could be managing people that may once have been your peers. And all this comes with immense pressure.

Jon Slatkin, former CEO of the advertising concern Titan Outdoor, which was recently acquired by JCDecaux, says: “Being the CEO is a lonely role. As much as you want to bring the people around you along for the ride, you don’t really have anyone you can open up to about what is going on as, ultimately, you are responsible.”

Of course, not everyone sees it as lonely.

Deanna Oppenheimer, CEO of Barclays Retail UK, explains: “I thought I would be making key decisions all the time and getting things done and implemented. I soon realised that, yes, you can make key decisions but, if you want them implemented, you better get the buy-in from your staff. You learn to influence, as well as develop directive skills and when to apply them best. A CEO of a major division within a company like Barclays means that you are doing the decision-making, selling that decision and getting support above and for the board, as well as across the organisation. Many say that it’s lonely at the top, but I don’t think it’s lonely. I think it’s just lots of activities where you have to be very nimble and flexible in how you go about decision-making.”

Perhaps one of the most important differences you will notice when taking up the CEO position is the extent to which people look at you.

Paul Drechsler, Chairman and Chief Executive of Wates Group Ltd, says: “The difference with the CEO role is characterised by behaviours. Your behaviours at the top have an effect that is disproportionate very often to other people in the organisation. So, you have to be aware that, if you make an ‘easy’ comment about something, it sends a signal to the whole company about your values. The ‘lighting’ on a CEO is much more intense so, whatever you do, everyone sees. You are always visible to everyone in the organisation every minute of the day.”

Richard adds: “It was a lonelier role than I thought it would be, despite being warned. [To counter this] I found it was important to put in place a support network of people you can talk to, both inside and outside the business.”

Build your Network

The first thing Rob did was to bring in a long-term senior business partner who immediately became his ‘trusted guy’ in the organisation. “You need your friends, and you need them extremely close to you,” he says. “You need to know who your friends are because, as CEO, everyone will want to be your friend and you may not know whom to trust.”

For Martin Balaam, the former CEO of Redstone plc, the simple answer to support was networking: “Pick up the phone and ask people. If I see a company that’s doing really well, I will pick up the phone and call the CEO. I will cold call them – and I’ve never had a CEO refuse to talk to me. It is very flattering for them.”

Brendan mentioned that, as “it’s lonely in this role, I wish I’d had (at least when I started), the support of an external mentor to bounce ideas around with. This is an area, incidentally, where a network such as Criticaleye can really help.”

Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues raised here.

I hope to see you soon

Matthew

www.twitter.com/criticaleyeuk

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