6 areas to focus on as a first-time CEO
As a first-time CEO, you may eagerly anticipate some of what comes with your new territory: the ultimate responsibility, influence and leadership as the highest-ranking executive at your business.
Key advice for first-time CEOs: Don’t try to accomplish everything at once.
Define what matters, assemble your resources and hew closely to your purpose. To gain a clear understanding of your new role, let’s examine six primary areas of focus.
Setting your company’s course is arguably the most significant and daunting responsibility you will face. After all, a company without strategy won’t last long. As CEO, you have the power and scope to determine the direction of your organization.
Seasoned chief executives offer this advice for first-time CEOs tackling strategic planning: The fastest way to screw up your company is to become an activity junkie and mire yourself in details, says Vistage Chair Dan Wertenberg. Don’t fall prey to the temptation of getting in the business and solving problems. You need to step back and work on your business. Let the musicians master their instruments; you are the conductor now.
In building strategy, be disciplined and eschew shortcuts. Employ research, analysis and perspective. Consider these steps from Vistage Speaker Marc Emmer, President of Optimize Inc., to encourage a rigorous strategy development process:
- Develop your vision.
- Define your competitive advantage.
- Identify your targets.
- Focus on systematic growth.
- Think big-picture.
- Remain agile.
“Developing your people is where you should spend the majority of your time.” — Robin Stanaland, Vistage Chair
You are not just the chief executive, you are the chief mentor. You will coach others to step up and move the enterprise forward according to the strategy you put into play.
Have regular coaching sessions with your executive team
Develop relationships with your executive team based on candor and accountability. One-on-one coaching sessions with your direct reports are the foundation of these crucial relationships. These meetings will yield great payoffs if you deliver on some basic tenets.
Educate your team about your goals
The most productive one-on-one sessions serve as a two-way flow of information. You extract information on how projects are progressing and gain insight into how your direct reports approach tasks and interpret plans.
Your team members gain understanding of their performance and alignment with you on enterprise goals. One-on-one meetings are excellent opportunities to give recognition, vet ideas and calibrate productivity targets.
Most significantly, these meetings are an opportunity to model the behavior you want your direct reports to use with their own people, says Vistage Speaker Lawrence King. With this in mind, he advises CEOs to make these meetings a priority, request an agenda, respect their colleagues’ time, and leave every meeting with an action plan.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
—Peter Drucker, writer, management consultant, business visionary
This sounds deceptively simple. It might be tempting to apply metrics to every aspect of your company’s performance and manage it to death. But Drucker’s wisdom is best applied judiciously: Measure what matters. Impressive-sounding stats are useless if they do not inform tightly focused decisions that calibrate your business toward your targets.
How to measure performance
When it comes to measuring performance, good advice for first-time CEOs is your True North should be the principles stated in your vision and mission. Are you measuring good customer-survey scores or how well you provide great customer service? Are you measuring lagging sales numbers or the efficacy of your sales training program?
Performance metrics are marvelous things, but the only ones that matter are the ones that align with your carefully crafted strategy.
4. Company culture
Did you inherit a company with an established culture? Maybe your fledgling company has a half-formed culture, or no discernable culture. Many first-time CEOs, burdened by other priorities, leave “the culture stuff” to human resources.
They are missing an excellent opportunity to put their leadership stake in the ground and attract a cohesive, motivated team, which is at the root of a thriving company.
How to create your company culture
Creating a culture with intention is the responsibility—and privilege—of the CEO. Vistage Chief Research Officer Joe Galvin calls culture “your organizational gravity.”
It is within the purview of the new CEO to influence who that gravity attracts. Dive into culture-building and lay the groundwork for the kind of company you want to run.
Tactics for building your unique culture
Here’s some great company culture advice from seasoned Vistage CEO members:
- Communicate with employees honestly, regularly and transparently.
- Combat negativity by sharing wins.
- Make data (e.g., EBITDA and sales goals) accessible to everyone.
- Spur innovation by rewarding good ideas.
- Create an accessible, two-way pipeline for employee feedback.
- Walk the diversity talk, creating a company that is inclusive and welcoming.
New CEOs may forgo their ambassador roles because they feel it’s the responsibility of salespeople and public relations, or shy from it because they don’t resemble the CEOs out of central casting.
But avoidance denies your staff, clients, suppliers and the public a human connection to your business. And that means missed opportunities.
This is especially true of customers, current and potential.
“Show up for the make-or-break deals,” says Wertenberg. “The CEO has heavy influence over those transactions by virtue of their title.” When the top person is involved in a transaction, it changes the dynamics. It can make the client feel much more comfortable about moving forward.
It’s important to build relationships with your top customers, adds King. “Move from being a commodity provider to a trusted personal adviser,” he says. “Invest the time to create a relationship, leader to leader.” Understanding future concerns of a few key clients is an investment in your strategy.
6. Lifelong learning
“The mark of a great leader is realizing—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
The core skill of any effective CEO is decision-making. Solid decision-making will hinge on your willingness to always be learning—about your industry, your competition, and your own weaknesses and strengths. Treat your education as a living entity and nurture it with a constant flow of fresh context, information and perspectives.
The best CEOs constantly seek new information streams and diverse perspectives. Good advice for first-time CEOs is to collect a cadre of trusted peers or colleagues to vet ideas and nourish creative thinking.
More great advice for new CEOs
We’ve created a survival guide for any new CEO. It will help you get out of the weeds and focus on your path toward business growth and personal fulfillment.