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The CEO Challenge

Being the boss brings unique role, responsibilities

With the continuing flood of baby boomer retirements, many individuals find themselves being promoted to CEO. It doesn’t matter if the individual is a long-term employee or new to an organization, they’ll find being a CEO is a lot different than being a senior manager. 

That’s because it represents a larger responsibility to lead rather than just managing. Being a leader requires different skills because of the fact the CEO is the decision-maker with full responsibility for the entire organization. While there’s a lot of autonomy in the CEO role, there’s also isolation that can be unnerving.

If you are one of the folks who has reached the height of success through an internal promotion, you’ll next experience a change in relationship with your former peers.

Now, with your promotion, these individuals have to envision you as their boss, and not everyone is comfortable with that. In addition, there’s the question of filling the shoes of the former CEO versus striking your own path. This decision requires a healthy balance of change initiatives, massaging existing relationships and developing new ones.

As part of the executive team before being CEO, you knew the key leadership role required handling a fast-paced environment. However, now you are at the pinnacle of your organization, you’ll see how fast things really are. You’ll have to change several of your old habits and remove yourself from day-to-day operational issues. You now need to focus on more strategic issues. Delegation needs to become a key skill. The role of CEO is complicated and challenging.

It is widely known many new CEO appointees last an average of 18 months, so it’s important you learn the ropes quickly.

At the same time, you’ll start to receive invitations for external activities such as sitting on another volunteer board.

You’ll be expected to take more leadership responsibility for your industry sector association, and I am sure you’ll find yourself meeting government leaders to lobby for legislative changes that impact your business.

You’ll be invited by your funders and long-term clients to discuss strategic vision, goals and objectives. The result? Believe me, there will be days when you’ll feel overwhelmed and wonder where the time went.

As the new CEO, you’ll also be surprised at the sense of loss you fee. That’s because you will no longer know the intimate details of daily operations. You have to let go, which means sometimes you don’t know what is going on in every department. You have to rely on your senior managers.

Yet being CEO is not a matter of giving orders, rather it’s about building a highly qualified senior management team.

It is this team that looks after the day-to-day operational details and prepares proposals for decision-making that are aligned with the vision and strategic plan.

By the time proposals get to the CEO level, they should be well-vetted and ready for final decision-making. The key skill here is the ability to ensure all of the senior team understands the vision and strategy, and all their work and ideas are directed toward this goal.

The role of CEO is more strategic. This means creating and communicating a vision, goals and objectives and then delegating to senior management. It means dealing with banks, investors, public relations and regulatory affairs, depending on the nature of your business.

There’s another phenomenon that is unique to the role of CEO. And that is how people literally "watch" your every move. Life will become a fishbowl. Even the clothes you wear and the car you drive will be scrutinized. Employees, customers and external stakeholders will watch everything you say and do.

Keep in mind all of your actions signal a message that can often be misinterpreted and then spread easily through gossip and social media. Take care to avoid "off-the-cuff" or "off-message" comments that could easily be misconstrued and cause problems.

Be it a non-profit agency, a private investor organization or a public company, another significant change often experienced by a new CEO is the need to report to a board. Boards consist of different personalities with different interests and needs, yet all of these members have their investment in mind.

Some respect the hands-off policy board approach while others can’t help but reach their hands into the operational issues.

Working with a board is different, it requires, tact, diplomacy and influence while at the same time paying attention to the accountability the board requires. That’s not an easy task in most cases, especially when some of your board members don’t support your recommendations.

So, where does one start?

First, a new CEO can’t wait until the shock of the new role has subsided, in fact, plans must be made immediately.

In my view, the key to planning is to first solidify and gain the trust of the senior management team. Work with this team, share your vision, get input and feedback and then solidify where you are going and how you will do it.

Take time to appreciate your new role and the organizational culture, and be sure to assess the tolerance for change within your senior management team as well as the organization itself.

Making change quickly is not the way to go unless the organization is in dire straits and change is the only thing left to do. Finally, keep in mind being CEO doesn’t mean you are the smartest of them all. Be humble, listen carefully and ask for input and recommendations. Be inquisitive, but rely on your team experts.

No matter whether your CEO appointment was internal or external, the first several months in the new role are critical in determining success.

There’s plenty of advice on how to manage your first 90 days but in my view, the wisest counsel comes from the process improvement guru, Edward Demming.

His formula, "Plan, do, check, act" will ensure to bring about the best results.

Practical tips for a mid-life career switch
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