New CEOs need fortitude, curiosity and savvy to succeed

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Quite a few CEOs are just stepping in to their positions, or in their first year or so, and while degrees and business experience are valuable, they don’t give the full picture of what’s needed—and not—to run a company.

Dealing with personnel and organizational issues, as well as stakeholders, customers and products are just a few of the hurdles many will face. It’s a time of trial by fire that demands a deft touch, inquisitiveness, patience and fortitude. 

Fortunately, many experienced CEOs are willing to give advice.

“The first, and best piece of advice I can pass on to a new CEO is the one most people already know but can easily lose sight of in the onslaught of day-to-day tasks: It’s all about your people,” said Todd Piett, CEO of Rave Mobile Safety. “The only way you can scale yourself and your organization is by encouraging an atmosphere of respect and trust, where across all levels of the organization people are empowered to make decisions, be comfortable making mistakes and willing to challenge the status quo.”

Consistency counts

Also, be consistent. “A great mentor told me not to try and be someone you aren’t,” Piett said. “While we all have areas to improve upon, don’t put on an artificial mantel just because you took on a new title. It’s not sustainable and others will see the inconsistencies in your behavior, frustrating themselves as they try to guess your intent.”

To be successful, a new CEOs should focus on identifying and building collaboration within their organizations and across other industries that impact their customer base, said Tracy Duberman, CEO of The Leadership Development Group.  This will require the following, she said:

  • Envisioning the future. New CEOs must have a clear vision of the direction their organization is heading and what it hopes to achieve.
  • Aligning stakeholders. As organizations bring stakeholders from other sectors into the conversation, new CEOs must allow these stakeholders to build on their original vision and incorporate their inputs and interests to develop a shared solution.
  • Managing boundaries and obstacles. Along the way toward developing collaborative solutions, the partnership will likely be faced with some bumps along the road. To overcome these obstacles, it’s important that new CEOs focus on opportunity, and remind themselves why the partnership was developed in the first place.
  • Act and learn. It is critical to be open to giving and receiving feedback in the interest of evolving that vision to the benefit of all parties. 

As a new CEO, “if you want to become a better leader, the one skill to improve above all others is communication,” said Art Coombs, CEO of KomBea Corp. “The ability to enthusiastically convey an idea, direction and vision to others is critical. And this critical skill is the one skill that truly separates ho-hum management from motivating leadership.”

It is imperative that a new CEO hold strengths in both strategy formulation and execution said Howard Seidel, senior partner at Essex Partners.

A cohesive unit

Development of the executive team into a cohesive unit is essential and CEOs' need to have or develop strong political instincts, Seidel said. “They need to effectively manage their relationships among board members and understand the sometimes unspoken commitments that exist inside an organizational culture. New CEO’s needs to understand how much board and team support they have for certain initiatives.”

In terms of personal traits, “new CEOs are best served combining confidence with some humility and curiosity,” Seidel said. “Projecting confidence is important but that is not mutually exclusive from a new CEO acknowledging that he or she doesn’t know everything, and benefiting from the point of view of older employees in the organization.”

But, “seeking input doesn’t absolve CEOs from understanding that they are ultimately responsible for final decisions,” Seidel said. “New CEOs often can relate to the adage that ‘it’s lonely at the top.’ Similarly, because not all executive decisions will be applauded by everyone in an organization, new CEOs need to have a thick skin, or have the capacity to develop it quickly.”

The unexpected

“You can prepare best by expecting the unexpected,” said Tom Axbey, CEO of CloudHealth. “What you think you know doesn't matter; the question is: have you done your due diligence, and do you have a 100-day plan? The brochure is always different from the resort. Be prepared to listen. To do that, you have to invest from day one in the people.”

Kelley Knutson, president of Netspend, advises new CEOs to use their initial period of time as an outsider to observe, listen and learn how an organization operates and ask a lot of questions beginning with “why” or “what.”

This relates to “sales practices, customer engagement, product development/delivery, operational processes and the competitive landscape,” Knutson said. “Use the things you have two of (eyes and ears) often, and only use your mouth after you’ve objectively understood the situation at hand and can add real value.”  

At the same time, “Ask the right questions, at the right time, to extract real insight and show people you’re listening and care about what they’ve said and what they know about their business,” Knutson said. “This is critically important when leading a group of seasoned, and experienced, leaders who will know the details of the business better than you.”

Openness matters

To do the best job, “be open, engaging, passionate, supportive, humble, inquisitive, and make the journey rewarding for everyone,” Knutson said. “That’s what true leadership is about.”

When Kathleen Savio, CEO of Zurich North America, took the CEO spot, “the first thing I did was focus on my strengthsthe contributions I can make to the job. Authentic leadership is where it all begins. For me, I’m inspired by the power of words and use them as a tool to inspire others. My favorite quote is an African proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

“That’s the real purpose of a CEO-–to bring everyone together, united in action, with a common purpose. So, I gathered our leaders together to listen to their insights and to emphasize we are one team. We value the diversity and potential of every individual. Defining the common purpose is the next step for the CEO. I’m making time with our customers a priority for me. In my first 100 days, I’m on the road meeting with customers and listen to their needs. In the end, it’s all about being there for our customers.”

Stay healthy

“As a new CEO, you will quickly notice that operating in a high-stress environment can take its toll physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Lowinn Kibbey, global head, Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute. “This can carry over from the office to all areas of life. While you may be fully equipped to take on a new leadership role, you may not realize just how important it is to stay healthy and resilient, and to continue to develop and improve your character.”

“As you establish yourself in your new role, don’t lose sight of your purpose,” Kibbey said. “Continue to ask yourself: What are you chasing? Why are you chasing it? Who are you becoming as you’re chasing it? Ensuring your decisions align with your character and values can significantly impact your work and quality of life.”

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