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The “Radical Novelty” of Being a CEO

Jeff Kindler, Bilal Zuberi, PhD, and Sam Arbesman, PhD

You’re the CEO! Congratulations! It can be the best job in the world. But it is qualitatively different from any other job you’ve ever had. And if you are certain you’re ready, you’re probably not.

Six months after they started the job, first-time company leaders said they felt much less prepared then they did on their first day, according to a study from The River Group LLC, a global leadership advisory firm. Specifically, first-time CEOs gave themselves an average “preparedness rating” of 7.2 out of 10 on day one, but six months later, reduced their scores to an average of 3.5. Essentially, being a CEO means finding out how many “unknown unknowns” there really are and learning how to manage them almost entirely on the fly.

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So, what are the many things that CEOs need to learn?

Paradoxes and Surprises of Being a CEO

1. You are the CEO … but you’re not the boss: You have responsibilities to many other constituencies that do not answer to you — ranging from the board to your customers to the media and to governments.

2. You can’t really “run” the company … and you shouldn’t: Try to micro-manage everything and not only will you fail to manage much, but you will end up failing to focus on the few critical things that only you can lead.

3. Everyone is watching you … all the time: This applies to both internal and external audiences. Your employees look to you as a leader and external audiences look to you as a representative of the company. People are even scrutinizing your body language. Be aware of how they are interpreting your words and actions.

4. You can’t know everything that’s going on … don’t try: Delegation and the ability to trust one’s employees is a strength, allowing you to focus on a small number of critical priorities.

5. You have responsibility … but not control: Just because you are responsible for everything that happens in your company doesn’t necessarily mean that you can control it all. Exercising a combination of humility as well as indirect influence is sometimes the best you can do. Which leads to the next point:

6. You have authority … but its costly to exercise: While a CEO can command, with each use of this authority, the CEO is diminished in the eyes of the rest of the company. Use this authority wisely.

CEO Self-Knowledge

  1. Focus on the most important things: Make sure you prioritize your goals or you will be completely consumed by the priorities of others.
  2. Watch out for other people’s agendas: Everyone you deal with has one. It doesn’t mean they’re acting in bad faith. It just means they’re advancing what’s important to them and only you have the broad perspective on the entire company.
  3. Balance and wellness are crucial: Make sure to keep a balance in your life (work and non-work) and prioritize health and wellness. If you let these things slip, your professional performance and that of your company will suffer.
  4. Learn how to manage your time: If you do not properly budget your time (the most important finite resource in your life), you will end up spending time on things that come at your from countless different directions — rather than on what is truly important for your company.
  5. Keep learning: Constant education is vital. Whether this consists of reading constantly to explore new ideas or simply trying to learn from everyone you meet, you must strive to be exposed to new concepts and new ways of thinking.
  6. Get an outside mentor: It is important that you find someone who is solely focused on your perspective and agenda … even as a sounding board. For example, get advice from those who have been CEO a few times in companies your size or larger. Learn as much from their mistakes as from their triumphs.
  7. Trust your instincts on people: If you feel that someone is great, don’t overthink it; hire them! If someone is not working the way you expected, trust your instincts and act quickly once you’ve validated them. If you need to upgrade your team, don’t delay … it only gets harder.

The Board as Your Team

Most likely, as CEO, you report to the Board of Directors. Managing this relationship effectively is crucial to your success and that of the company. Here are six things to remember:

  1. They are individuals … and they are also a group: The dynamics of a group are different than when you interact with each board member individually. Recognize this and you will not be surprised by each person’s responses and behavior.
  2. No surprises … full transparency: The board is on your side and they want you to succeed. But this can only happen when information is shared in a timely and complete way.
  3. Communicate, communicate, and communicate: More information is always better than less.
  4. Remember the parachute principle — Remind and Repeat: Unlike you and your team, who live with the company around the clock, board members “parachute” periodically into a company; they can’t be expected to remember everything from the last meetings and to be current on what’s going on the way you are. So, refresh and remind them, repeatedly, of what was agreed last time and what’s happening now.
  5. Achieve alignment and track progress: Create explicit objectives and milestones and make sure that the board is fully aligned with those goals. Then, keep them current on the company’s progress against the goals.
  6. Proactively seek and benefit from their guidance: Value Them! Individually and as a group, they are an invaluable resource to you and they want to help.

As a CEO, you have the opportunity to enjoy a great professional adventure, to build a high-performance team, to achieve great things for customers and shareholders. If you approach the task with the self-knowledge and humility this unique position warrants and if you continue always to listen and to learn, you have every prospect of succeeding.

Good luck being a CEO!

Jeff Kindler is the CEO of Centrexion Corporation. In addition, he is a Venture Partner at Lux Capital, and serves as Executive Chairman of vTv, and Managing Director at Starboard Capital Partners. He serves on a number of public and private Boards of Directors. Previously, Kindler was Chairman and CEO of Pfizer.

Bilal Zuberi is a Partner at Lux Capital and invests in companies that use technology to solve real, practical problems, in areas such as drones, 3D printing, health analytics, IoT, and more. Follow Bilal on Twitter.

Sam Arbesman is Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital and the author of Overcomplicated. Follow Sam on Twitter.



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