If you are reading this, chances are you have encountered articles telling you that a good chief executive officer (CEO) needs to be a decisive, results-oriented leader who can simultaneously articulate a strategic vision for the company, embody its culture and values, and represent it to outside entities—all while driving growth.
You probably also know that CEOs walk a tightrope between the often-contradictory imperatives of their job. They must be optimistic, capable of seeing opportunities wherever they look, and at the same time be capable of assessing the risks that lie beneath those opportunities. They must be great listeners and team-builders, able to synthesize information and opinions from a variety of sources; but they must also be decisive, willing to make decisions without consensus in moments of informational uncertainty.
The CEO position is comprised of psychological and emotional complexities; knowing what a CEO does and knowing how being a CEO feels are very different, and making the leap to the lead executive chair is one of the single most challenging job changes of most CEOs’ careers.
So, here are eight things you should know when making the transition:
Most first-time CEOs come to the role after decades of hard work—decades during which they had peers with whom they could informally trade feedback and superiors to whom they could refer certain hard-to-make decisions. The fact that CEOs have neither bosses nor peers within the company constitutes a real and drastic change, one that requires adjustment and often drives the social isolation, lack of feedback, and fear of decisiveness that first-time CEOs frequently experience.
Almost by definition, when you have boss, you also have someone to whom you can defer responsibility for the most consequential or challenging decisions. But when you are the CEO, you are that boss. For many executives, this is something they have longed for: the moment when they get to give orders without having to run them by someone else. But with this authority comes an intense emotional burden: suddenly you are the person making decisions—often based on limited information—that can have serious ramifications for the company’s health and the quality of your people’s lives. Indeed, at times you will have to choose between those exact things. Even experienced CEOs can find the weight of authority incredibly taxing, especially in times of crisis.
CEOs hold an almost reverential position in many companies. There are several explanations for this fact, but one of them is that it is the simple consequence of power disparity. If you are an employee, the CEO of your company is not just in charge of what you do at your job every day, they are in charge of whether you have your job at all. And this fact understandably influences the ways in which employees interpret and behave around their CEO.
One by-product of your authority as a CEO is that what you say—and how you look when you say it—matters more than it did earlier in your career. For this reason, experienced CEOs are often quite careful when they speak; they know that even a spur-of-the-moment idea or opinion can, if voiced, have lasting impacts on the company’s culture, behavior, and reputation. As a new CEO, you can’t bounce ideas off just anyone. You can’t have emotional reactions around just anyone. You must calculate the potential interpretations and ramifications of every idea and opinion before you voice them.
As the CEO, you embody—whether you intend to or not—the culture you want to see in your company. The way you speak, the way you comport yourself, the kinds of financial decisions you make on and off the job—all of these things send a message to the people who work for you. You may be astonished to learn, as a new CEO, that your employees talk about the model of car you drive and how much you paid for your house. But they will; and they’ll infer things about you and your values from that information.
Culturally speaking, CEOs need to understand (and leverage) the fact that their behavior has a symbolic dimension. Getting rid of corporate jets, for example, may have a tiny impact on the bottom line in the greater scheme of things, but it can go a long way in revising the tone of the company’s culture.
Your own employees are not the only ones hanging on your every word and deed. As most first-time CEOs know, chief executives spend a significant amount of time and energy representing the company to the public—that is, to the media, to investors, and to stakeholder communities. But it is important to note that as the CEO, you are always serving in this capacity. Your life is now a symbol for something larger, and there are certain penalties that come with being a symbol. You give up a significant amount of anonymity, for example, and you give up certain freedoms that come with that anonymity. For some new CEOs and their families, this takes some getting used to.
If you are coming into the company as a CEO, you are inheriting years, even decades, of relationships, precedents, expectations, and practices—many of which will never be described to you.
Our culture tends to credit an organization’s successes and failures to the person in charge. If the company performs well, the CEO is applauded. If it stumbles, the CEO is blamed. But factors beyond the CEO’s control can dictate both successes and failures. As a CEO, you will be blamed for things that you feel like you had no control over, things you feel like you inherited, just as you’ll be applauded for successes that may not be directly linked to your actions. Either way, you must understand that the core responsibility of your job is to focus on creating value in the space between these extremes.
Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020