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Eye Opener: The Biggest Surprises Executives Face When They Reach the C-Suite

A woman is giving a presentation to a group of people.

Ask a lower-level executive who has finally reached the rarified air of the C-suite what it feels like and you're likely to hear about adrenaline rushes and pride for the accomplishment.

Landing in the C-suite, however, doesn't come without a shock or two and some quick lessons learned within a few days spent on the job.

To discover what C-suite leaders unexpectedly learned upon reaching the apex of corporate power and responsibility, we asked executives a direct question: What was the biggest surprise you found at the chief officer level, and what lessons did you learn from the experience?

From learning how to communicate better to overcoming feeling like an imposter, here are the biggest surprises and lessons learned by these C-suite executives.

Traci Gee, chief people officer at the National Association of Corporate Directors in Arlington, Va.

After a long career as a human resources executive at Raytheon, Gee became the top human resources executive at the NACD. She noticed right away that being the new kid on the block, even at the C-level, was a learning experience—and a steep one.

"Realizing that I was joining an organization in progress—not a blank slate—was a challenge to be embraced." Gee said. "As a new member of the C-suite, you're inheriting the history, experiences, the perceptions of previous leaders, and all of the things people at an organization have been through before you got there."

Consequently, it was important for Gee to realize that she'd have to be constantly learning on the job and that having the skill to pivot was essential.

"To address these challenges, I relied on data," Gee said. "Not just numbers, but detailed interviews and impressions and honest assessments from employees. I grounded everything in the business strategy."

Gee eventually met with every single member of the organization (which may not be possible in a larger company) and took the time to ask questions, listen and base her assessment on the truths she heard.

"This was a delicate balance of building my credibility in the new environment while also gaining the trust of the employees," she said.

Tony Jamous, chief executive officer at Oyster, a global employment services company in London.

For Jamous, who has served as CEO at three companies in his career, family considerations lead the list of "big surprises."

"I learned early on that, to prioritize my family in addition to my new role, I needed to shift my work hours to later in the day so I could spend the morning with my wife and kids," Jamous said. "While I'd work later into the evening, the morning spent with my family allowed me to have quality time with them while still getting through everything that needed to get done."

Mary Guirovich, CEO and founder of My Promotion Plan, a business coaching firm in San Antonio, Texas.

Guirovich survived a long and winding road to the corner office. Once there, she felt a strong temptation to rush into the breach and prove her leadership skills. Now she knows better.

"I learned to take time in my new role and get to thoroughly know my team," Guirovich said. "I realized I need to learn how our team communicates, thinks, processes new tasks and receives appreciation, and I needed to learn their values, goals and drivers."

A big realization for Guirovich, who rose from the bottom rung of the career ladder to the C-suite, was that she was once in her employees' shoes. "I learned quickly to treat team members better than I want to be treated," she said.

Baron Christopher Hanson, founder of RedBaron Consulting LLC, a management consulting firm in Charleston, S.C.

Hanson, who has trained and mentored hundreds of C-suite executives in his 30 years as a management consultant, says the biggest shock to newly crowned senior executives is having to identify friends and enemies.

"It's amazing how many new and interesting people will want to either get to know you and work with you and pitch you something; or take you down, embroil you in office politics, and try to have your job or your head; or both," Hanson said.

That's a big problem for C-level leaders, who may not have expected there to be two groups of employees and executives—at least not at that level of intensity and aggressiveness.

"One batch wants you to prosper, and one batch wants you to fail," he said. "The only way to address both to your advantage is to be open and honest about both factions with your immediate C-level team or your board of directors."

Enrico Tollis, chief partnership officer at OpenWeb, an audience management platform based in New York City.

One of the biggest challenges for Tollis moving into an executive position was realizing he had to manage at a macro level and would have less control over day-to-day firm operations.

"Your role transforms into empowering other team members, making sure they have what they need to succeed and putting a lot of trust in others," Tollis said. "To address that, I surrounded myself with great people that made the team a stronger unit, but that progression was definitely challenging in the beginning."

According to Tollis, a "big part" of being a good executive is trying to anticipate challenges ahead of time. Even more important is how you handle and manage unforeseen challenges.

"Of course, there are great books and educational channels out there to learn, but for me, the most impactful resource is surrounding myself with great mentors," he said.

Tollis said he's had some amazing chief technology officer and chief financial officer mentors over the years. "You could really learn from them," he said. "Those corporate officers gave me inspiring advice and allowed me to learn through osmosis on how to be a good executive."

Nelson Patterson, president and CEO of Anavasi Diagnostics, a medical devices firm based in Libertyville, Ill.

For Patterson, addressing competing interests was the biggest surprise when he reached the C-suite.

"As CEO, there's a dual allegiance in a start-up/private company that you always have to carefully manage," Patterson said. "There's the need to sell, convert and deliver for the investors versus the strategic imperative to build a product [for] long-term success."

Patterson said he addresses this conflict in two ways:

1. Seek good counsel from peers who are simultaneously in or who have progressed through a similar situation.

2. Ask questions of team members to probe for ideas, recommendations and suggestions for improvement.

"I've learned that there are rarely single answers to many questions. Most require you to select the least negative option or to cobble together an approach from multiple options," he said.

Katya Laviolette, chief people officer at 1Password, a technology privacy services company based in Montreal.

Laviolette's first reaction upon being named a C-level officer was excitement, though she admits, "I actually felt a bit of imposter syndrome."

"My first C-level experience was replacing someone who was a known expert in their field with over 30-plus years of experience. I was 38 years old at the time and needed to learn quickly and trust my instincts."

Most of Laviolette's colleagues were older and had more years of experience than she did.

"It required me to have humility, grit and some level of trust in myself that someone intentionally selected me for this role, which meant they believed I had something valuable to contribute to the role," she said.

Another unexpected surprise was the lack of vibe surrounding her new position.

"The C-suite has some aura to it," Laviolette  said. "Frankly, it's just another group of leaders sitting around the table trying to row the boat in the same direction and sometimes having to change direction given unexpected changes in weather."

"When you put this into perspective, things get easier," she said.

Laviolette's best piece of advice to future C-suite officers: Never assume that what you did as a manager or executive before is the right move for the future.

"You need to listen, be continually curious and watch the dynamics at play so you can onboard effectively and assume your seat at the table," she said. "Just because you are appointed to the C-suite doesn't mean it will automatically go smoothly. Be prepared for this."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).


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