Hit the Ground Running as a New CEO

Aliah D. Wright By Aliah D. Wright June 5, 2018
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How can new CEOs get off on the right foot?

Embrace the role with humility, forget about replicating what other CEOs have done and find the approach that works best for you—one that suits your personality and your management style, experts and CEOs say.

But first, do your homework.

"You have to connect before you can lead. So first, understand the business as is," advised Wade Burgess, CEO of Shiftgig, a Chicago-based technology platform that connects companies with pre-vetted workers. Burgess is a former vice president of talent solutions at LinkedIn. He was recently appointed CEO at Shiftgig after the chairman and former chief executive officer, Eddie Lou, decided Burgess was the right person to lead the company he helped co-found.

"The role of CEO requires a very different skill set than any other role in the organization," said Leslie Peters, author of the newly revised Finding Time to Lead: Seven Practices to Unleash Outrageous Potential (Difference Press, 2017).

She said the view of the organization, the span of control and authority, and the level of responsibility and pressure are all different from the CEO's standpoint.

While it's exciting and exhilarating, she said, it can also be overwhelming and, "if you're being realistic, it should be a bit daunting."

She and other experts say new CEOs must first assess the condition of the business and employee morale. Next, identify key stakeholders—board members, investors, industry leaders and the organization's influencers—and then weigh their concerns. Then it's time to make decisions about what's good for the organization.

Understand the Culture Before Making Changes

Of the roughly 5,000 CEOs of publicly traded companies in the United States, 10 percent leave annually, according to the most recent CEO Succession: Data Spotlight report from Stanford Business School's Corporate Governance Research Initiative. Reasons include health, a new job and retirement. Some leave because they discover the job is not for them.

"Some executives are great No. 2s but don't want to be or aren't cut out to be No. 1," said Howard Seidel, senior partner at Essex Partners, a career management and leadership development consultancy in Boston. "It is important to know this prior to taking the job. Learning it afterward is often frustrating and can have negative career consequences."

That's why it's so important to make sure you "learn about how you can align yourself with the company's culture, preferably before you sign the contract," said Appical CEO and co-founder Gerrit Brouwer. Appical is an employee engagement software company based in the Netherlands.

"You've likely undergone an extensive selection process after you were headhunted, and it is important that you learn as fast as possible where the company culture stands and how it relates to your own values," he said. New CEOs should ask themselves if they can live the company's values and embrace them, before coming up with new ones.

"If you are not a match, don't sign, because you will not make it in the long run," Brouwer said. "The culture will have you grilled."

Why Communication Is Vital

"Understanding the job as it currently exists and how the job will change in the next several years is of critical importance," said Steve Weingarden, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, an industrial organizational psychologist and president of Innovators of Change in Toledo, Ohio. His consultancy helps CEOs transition into their roles at midsize organizations.

Weingarden said it's essential that new CEOs master coaching, culture and self-awareness. "The new CEO also needs to … understand how he or she is communicating with employees, especially around his or her vision, and how that communication approach can be improved."

For example, good communication practices can save you time—and even improve your health. Ian McClarty, CEO and president of Phoenix Data Center LLC, a Phoenix-based IT services firm, said, "A while back, I mapped out my day and focused on what I was spending the most time on. The answer was phone calls." So, he said, he started standing while talking on the phone. "It has been amazing that the simple act of standing during a phone call helped shorten the call, saving me time. This has been an excellent timesaver, increased my productivity and saved my back."

Enlist the Help of Others

New CEOs almost always can benefit from an expert partner from the outside, Weingarden said, adding that coaching is vitally important. A "qualified external consultant or coach can offer so much value."

But new CEOs have to listen. "Customers, employees, your top management team, your board, your family—they all have something valuable to say," he said.

"When you're a CEO newbie, it's important to surround yourself with people who are smarter and/or more experienced than you in their respective fields of expertise," said Nicholas DeNuccio, who, at 23, is CEO of California-based Propaganda Premium E-Liquid, which manufactures and distributes flavored liquids to more than 5,000 vape shops in the U.S. and to 40 countries around the world. "An effective CEO not only has the self-assurance to know what he or she doesn't know but the moxie to hand the reins to the right person when necessary" or turn to that person for advice.

Still, at the end of the day, experts say, new CEOs shouldn't be afraid to lead with confidence.

"In the early days of sitting in the CEO chair, I [wish] I had been given the advice to be less afraid of just doing what I wanted, as well as to be reminded that my work could always use some improvement," said Rune Sovndahl, co-founder and CEO of Fantastic Services, a London-based professional domestic services provider.

New CEOs shouldn't expect immediate results, though. Success cannot be rushed.

"Embrace the idea that substantial success takes time," Weingarden said. "In my research, we measured performance at one and three years from succession. In many cases, the results from CEO performance may not be visible until several years later.

"It's a tough position because a CEO is highly visible and yet patience and milestone achievements are critical to staying on course."

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