A survival guide for first-time CEOs

Becoming a first-time CEO is an exciting new challenge. But it can also be daunting.

As the highest-ranking executive at your business, you’ll have the ultimate responsibility to make decisions, influence strategy and lead others. 

But don’t try to accomplish everything at once.

Although you might feel pressure to just jump straight into your responsibilities, being a successful leader is all about taking baby steps and mastering each step before trying to run. 

Here are six key areas you should focus on as a first-time CEO. 

Take your business to a whole new level with our CEO’s 7 Laws of Leadership.


1. Strategy

Strategy is everything. 

And, as a first-time CEO, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to focus too much on activity or get bogged down by detail. You have the power to determine your organisation’s direction. So, it’s important that you nail down your approach and set some time aside for strategic planning. 

If you don’t do this you risk making hasty decisions that aren’t in your business’ best interests. So, when building your strategy, you should be thorough, disciplined, and avoid shortcuts. 

Vistage speaker and President of Optimize Inc., Marc Emmer recommends the following ten steps to help you create a killer business strategy:

1. Develop your vision - where do you want your company to go, and what does success look like for you?
2. Define your competitive advantage - where does your company deliver value to clients over your competitors?
3. Identify your targets - align your sales and marketing by clearly understanding your target market
4. Focus on systematic growth - which segments of your company should grow, and in which proportions?
5. Make fact-based decisions - use relevant facts and information to inform decisions
6. Think long term - don’t just think quarter-to-quarter, plan further ahead
7. Be nimble - while you should think long term, you should also be able to adapt to sudden changes and new circumstances 
8. Be inclusive - include people you trust and who can think strategically during your planning
9. Come prepared - research and prepare relevant information ahead of strategy meetings
10. Measure your results - use key performance indicators (KPIs), cascading goals and productive meetings

Lastly, you want your whole organisation to be on board with your strategy. After all, they’re who will be helping you to implement it. 

You have to set a strategy and a vision - but you need your vision to be inspiring,” says Vistage Chair Graeme Thompson.


2. Coaching

The people who you’re leading or training need to come into an environment, a working place, and feel like they can achieve their dreams and passions.”—Graeme Thomson, Vistage Chair.

As a first-time CEO, you likely didn’t get to where you are by chance. Chances are, you had the help of a more experienced mentor that guided you through your career. Now’s your time to give back.

It’s now your job to create an environment where your teams feel like their dreams are achievable - and to help them get there. You also need to coach others so they can step up and effectively put into place the strategy that you’ve created. 

Here’s how you do that.

Have regular coaching sessions with your executive team

You should strive to create relationships with your executive team based on honesty and accountability. 

One way you can do that is by hosting regular one-on-one coaching sessions with direct reports to help clarify expectations, communicate priorities, and offer any support they might need.

These meetings will have great payoffs - not only in terms of delivering your strategy but in helping them to become better leaders, too. 

Educate your team about your goals

It’s important to communicate with your employees and keep them up to date about goals and new developments in a regular, inspiring and consistent way, says Vistage Speaker, David Smith. And face-to-face communication is the best way to do this. But it’s not all about you relaying information to them. The most productive one-on-ones are two-way streams of information.

These meetings are not only an opportunity for you to update them on goals and developments, give recognition, vet ideas and calibrate productivity targets, but also for them to inform you on how projects are progressing and how they’re approaching tasks. 

They also enable you to set an example of the behaviour you want them to use with their own people, says Vistage Speaker, Lawrence King. 

Lawrence, therefore, recommends making these meetings a priority, requesting an agenda, respecting colleagues’ time and leaving each meeting with a plan of action.


3. Performance

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”—Peter Drucker, writer, management consultant, business visionary

Key to growth is being able to measure where you are right now. And, not only that, but how these metrics change over time. For example, by measuring good customer survey scores, you’re actually measuring how well you provide great customer service. And by measuring lagging sales numbers, you’re actually tracking the efficacy of your sales training programme. 

But, while it might be tempting to track the metrics on every aspect of your company’s performance, it’s best to focus on the things that matter

You don’t want to end up drowning in metrics that you can’t action or that aren’t relevant to your business strategy. Instead, your performance metrics should centre around the principles you’ve laid out in your strategy, vision and mission. 


4. Company culture

As a first-time CEO, you’ll have many burning priorities on your plate at once. So, it can be easy to overlook addressing your company culture when you first start your role. 

But whether you’ve inherited a company with an already established culture, a half-formed culture, or no discernable culture at all, this is your opportunity to put your stamp on the business and create an environment where your business and people can thrive.

Robert Stead, Part-Time Marketing Director at The Marketing Center, advises: “Many organisations exist with a ‘default’ culture. … In the absence of anything specific, the way that the founders of the business worked will be the way that the business operates in the future.”

So, by establishing a culture with intention, you can make sure you’re setting up the business to thrive and work in the most efficient way possible - rather than things just getting done the way they’ve always been done. 

How to create your company culture

Your culture is your “organisational gravity,” says Vistage Chief Research Officer Joe Galvin. And it’s down to you as CEO to influence what and who that gravity attracts. 

Here’s some advice from seasoned Vistage CEO members on how to build a great culture and lay the groundwork for the kind of organisation you want to run:

  • Communicate with employees honestly, regularly and transparently
  • Combat negativity by sharing wins
  • Make data (e.g., earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortisation (EBITDA) and sales goals) accessible to everyone
  • Spur innovation by rewarding good ideas
  • Create an accessible, two-way pipeline for employee feedback
  • Create a company that’s diverse, inclusive and welcoming for all 

5. Ambassadorship

You might feel like ambassador roles are the responsibility of your salespeople or public relations teams. But being an ambassador for your company is one of your most important roles you hold as CEO.

In fact, you are now the face of the company. And, it’s difficult for employees, clients, suppliers and the public to get to know that face if they never see it. You risk denying them a human connection to your business - which might turn into missed opportunities as a result.

When clients feel like they have a connection with you, it can make them feel more comfortable about moving forward with a deal, for example.

Show up for the make-or-break deals,” says Vistage Chair, Dan Wertenberg. “The CEO has heavy influence over those transactions by virtue of their title.”

It’s important to build relationships with top customers and become a “trusted personal adviser,” Lawrence King adds. “Invest time to create a relationship, leader to leader.”


6. Lifelong learning

Learning is not a one-time event or periodic luxury. Great leaders in great companies recognize that the ability to constantly learn, innovate, and improve is vital to their success.”—Amy Edmonson, author and Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School.

Being a CEO isn’t just about imparting your long-accumulated wisdom on others. Even when you reach the top, that doesn’t mean the learning stops. 

The best CEOs constantly look for new information streams and diverse perspectives when tackling a challenge, as well as to continuously learn about their industry, competition, and their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s this curiosity that makes a good leader - a curiosity that keeps their perspective fresh and their minds sharp.

As a new CEO, ensuring you’re continuously learning will enable you to make the best informed and most considered decisions possible. We’d recommend collecting a group of trusted peers and colleagues to vet ideas and nourish your thinking processes. 

The mark of a great leader is realising - despite success - that there are still people who can help, and that it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know, what do you think?”—Jay McDonald, Vistage Chair


More great advice for first-time CEOs

We’ve created a guide to the 7 Laws of Leadership for new CEOs. These are seven fundamental truths about leadership that can take your business - and your life - to a whole new level.

image via adobe stock by Jo Panuwat D

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