Recently I had lunch with a long-time friend and senior executive of a successful company. She’s been at the job for many years and the company has gone from a startup of twenty people to almost six hundred.
We spoke about the many things she’s learned and changes she’s gone through as she’s moved up and the company has grown. She’s had an impressive career, to say the least.
However, she opened up to me that she wants to step it up and is looking for a new position. Specifically, a CEO position. She wants her turn at the helm and to apply herself in the number one spot, rather than being number two. I honestly couldn’t think of a better next step for her. We spent the next thirty minutes talking about what exactly she would like in a new position and how she might find that opportunity.
At one point she asked me, as a former CEO myself and currently an executive coach, what advice I would have for her once she’s in a new position as CEO. It was a good question. One I should be better prepared for. We talked through several ideas and ended up with a list of five key areas of focus for the first few months.
#1: Be deliberate about your learning
In a new position, you have a lot to learn. The business. The people. The history. Outline everything you can think of and prioritize. Set up specific goals and strategies for getting the information you need and how you’ll retain what you’ll learn. Expect that there are many unknowns and that you’ll need to add to your list as you go. Be a sponge. Stay curious as you speak to people. Key phrases: “Tell me more,” “Help me understand,” and “What else do I need to know?” Also, don’t just listen, look and observe. Pay attention to body language, how others are interacting, where people sit, how offices are organized, where people congregate, etc. Notice differences between what people say and how people behave. Take it all in and don’t make assumptions. Ask lots of questions.
#2: Take a hard look at your past behaviors and their results
If you’ve been at the same company for a long time–five or more years–you’ve developed many of your current behaviors and much of your current style inside one particular environment. This can be a risk. Expect things to be different in a new company. As a result, the things that may have worked for you well in the past, might not work so well in the new context. When you find yourself surprised, take a moment and think about what you expected and how you need to adjust. Ask for feedback and be open to what others say. This is often a good time to work with a coach who can help you unpack the problems, develop new strategies, give perspective, and create plans for implementing changes.
#3: Define your new purpose and role, and communicate it
Don’t assume everyone knows what your role is and what your responsibilities are. While the job might have the same title, how you fill it is most likely very different than how your predecessor did. Get clear on what your commitments and expectations are of yourself and of others. Talk openly and often, especially in the beginning. Far too many people I’ve coached operated with the assumption that everyone knew what everyone else was doing, only to find out–often far too late–that wires were crossed. Especially important are decision-making processes and rights. Who has input, who doesn’t, who makes the call, and who approves, are critical to know in order to be effective.
#4: Build relationships at all levels
One of the most important, and most difficult, parts of being new is forging new relationships. And don’t only focus on your immediate reports. Meet people in all departments and at all levels of the organization. Just sitting down with someone and asking, “What should I know?” or “How would you make this company better?” can yield a treasure trove of information and insights. Find out who the key conduits of information are and develop an open channel for them to reach you directly. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut. Relationships take time to build. Stay present and connected to the conversation. Don’t be afraid to keep going even if it feels like you know everything you need to. Get to know your people and how they tick.
Many new executives fail here because they become too wrapped up in making an impression. They meet with people, but instead of listening they try to convince everyone they deserve the job. They go on about their background, previous successes, and the great plans they have for the future. Don’t fall into this trap. Stay humble and curious. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Use them proportionately.
#5: Create momentum and advocate change
The most difficult part of starting is taking the first step. Keeping things in motion is much easier than putting things in motion. Find out what needs to be done and act sooner rather than later. Two things keep new CEOs from acting early in their tenure: one, they want to make sure they have all the information before deciding; and two, they want to have a perfect plan thought out before embarking on a new project.
The fact is, you’ll never have 100% of the information and there is no such thing as a perfect plan. The sooner you can try out some ideas by putting things in flight, the sooner you’ll have real data and real feedback. Run controlled experiments early and be okay with the possibility that not everything will work out as planned. Learn and adjust and try again. Most new CEOs play it too safe. They don’t take good, calculated risks as soon as opportunities present themselves. Instead, they hold back and wait. Sometimes until it’s too late.
Obviously there are other considerations and priorities that need to go into the mix, but these five will help make the most impact early in the game. Being a CEO is hard work, but being a new CEO is even harder. With time, things become easier. Getting things off on the right foot and off to a good start helps.
By Bruce Eckfeldt, is an entrepreneur, a former Inc 500 CEO, and member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization.