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The adage ‘it is lonely at the top’, although often overused, proves
too true for many business leaders. Once at the top few people truly
can be used as a sounding board. Being appointed CEO means taking on
the public persona of the organisation and, as we have seen recently,
becoming the public whipping boy when things go wrong. All this comes
with immense pressure.
However, not everyone can become a CEO - it takes a fair amount of hard
work, initiative and a good amount of luck. Criticaleye partnered with Penna,
the leading global management consultancy, to research, interview and
film experienced CEOs about their aspirations to become a CEO and what
the position is really like.
Once you become CEO, you join a very small group and often have no
peers. You very quickly become leader to those that were once your
colleagues. Our research with Penna reiterates the sentiments of you,
our Executive Community, and why our network of leaders exists.
Providing you with a supportive environment where you can interact with
your peers is of the utmost importance to us.
“I never aspired to be a CEO, which is probably why I am one now. I
always wanted to be able to contribute, make a difference, and what I
found out early on is that I was a good leader, good at multitasking,
able to balance a lot of things and a good problem solver. When I
became CEO of Barclays Retail, I had a particular skill set and track
record in retail banking that they wanted,” asserts Deanna Oppenheimer, CEO, Barclays Retail.
It is important not to pass up opportunities when they come along says Richard Laing, CEO, CDC.
“I’m the sort of individual that gets bored easily and always needs a
challenge. Therefore, throughout my whole career, I’ve always been
looking forward and asking myself what I am going to do next. Where is
this role going? I don’t think people should be at all shy about
jumping at opportunities when they come, it doesn’t all have to be
terribly planned; when an opportunity comes just go for it.”
Once the position has been offered and accepted, the first 100 days can
be trying as you are now at the helm of the ship. “The great advice
that I was given when I joined Halfords was not to move too quickly,
don’t feel that you have to make an immediate impression,” said David Wild, CEO, Halfords.
“The first hundred days is about understanding the business. You do
this by taking a view of all stakeholders, whether it’s customers,
colleagues, investors or the media. You have to take the time to
understand their perspective and then form your view. If you react too
quickly and start making changes quickly, you’ll make mistakes. Take
time to formulate a clear plan and communicate it.”
Although all the CEOs we spoke to made it through many wished that they
had more support in those first days and found that the reality of
being chief executive differed from the idea. “I guess something that
confronts you when you walk in on day one, or get told you’ve got the
job, is the gap that suddenly opens up between you and the rest of the
organisation. Suddenly, in many ways, you are on your own. The
organisation, your stakeholders and customers then look to you as the
personification of the organisation,” says Tim Matthews,CEO, Remploy.
Steve Easterbrook, Chief Executive, McDonald’s UK, who
had been working for the company for 12 years before he was appointed
CEO, was struck by the sudden onslaught of external pressure. “The
thing that has taken me by surprise has been the external expectations.
And that was a totally new area for me, so I’ve had to learn how to
deal with that very quickly and it's something I needed development on.”
As the marketplace becomes ever more globalised the role of CEO is
changing. So, what are the critical talents, strengths and values
needed to be a successful leader?
Andy Bond, CEO, Asda, says, “For me the model I use it
to focus on strategy, people and execution. You’ve got to be a good
strategist, to care and be attentive to people, and you’ve got to know
enough about the business you’re in to be able to judge and get
involved in the detailed execution. You cannot sit above that.”
The significance of the bigger picture should never be lost on a CEO.
“The ability to see how the larger picture affects the smaller one -
ie, what’s the global impact on my business – is important. Another
important point is attracting, motivating and retaining a top rate
team. The most successful CEOs are usually, the ones who’ve got the
best teams around them. If you want to stay a CEO, you’ve got to be
really well attuned to the messages you’re getting from the chairman,
board members and shareholders,” says Richard.
Once appointed CEO it can feel a little like drowning, the group of
experienced CEOs offered their tips to aspiring CEOs and new CEOs:
Do a fabulous job at whatever you’re doing now, because
people don’t get to be CEOs by being mediocre in their careers. People
get to be CEOs by being fabulous performers, being innovative and
communicating their successes
Work on your communication skills. CEOs need to be great communicators
Have a breadth of knowledge and interests. Show a hunger and appetite for new knowledge, responsibilities and roles
Be patient and politically savvy
Do not shy away from opportunities when they are presented
for general management roles. If you are in a particular discipline,
volunteer for projects that take you out of your comfort zone into
Learn, listen and network with CEOs. Talk to them about the challenges they face and the issues with which they deal
It won’t fall into your lap - you’re going to have to work at it
Visibility is critical. You have got to be on the radar of anyone in the organisation that matters
If you want to become a leader of an organisation, get into a business that is growing because you get opportunities
got to go into roles that build expertise and a track record. It is
better to have experiences that demonstrate leadership, expertise and
Have a clear vision of what you want to do
Focus on three things- strategy, people and execution
sure you get a good team around you - you want some people that are
willing to say you’ve got it wrong and there’s a better way of doing
things, also get rid of the energy suckers
Trust your instincts – if you think something needs fixing or isn’t right push ahead
Have more patience
This is an excerpt from a Criticaleye Community Article – Mindset of
the CEO. The full article will appear on the website and in the Review
which you should be receiving shortly. The filmed interviews will be
released on the Criticaleye TV pages over the coming months.
If you are interested in this week's topic please take a look at our Insights page on the website. Our Write-up on the December CEO Breakfast looks at what is currently on the minds of CEOs from SMEs and listed companies.
Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues in today's update.