Three Peaks Leadership - How to make it as a CEO (and beyond)

a year ago   •   5 min read

By Philip Levinson

Three Peaks Leadership – How to make it as a CEO (and beyond)

Philip Levinson details all the dos and don’ts in the journey to becoming a CEO.

 

·  So you want to be a CEO – really?!

There is nothing more alluring than life at the top. The perks, the respect, the ability to influence outcomes and make a contribution. Right? In reality, whilst leading an organisation is an incredibly interesting, multi-faceted role, a privilege and a balance between humility and omnipotence, it is also one of the toughest gigs you can take on in your entire career.

You will be pilloried for making mistakes in your decisions, for not making decisions, for taking too long to make decisions, for being too hands-on, for being too hands-off – I think you get the picture!

You will be pilloried for making mistakes in your decisions, for not making decisions, for taking too long to make decisions, for being too hands-on, for being too hands-off – I think you get the picture! It’s a lonely place at the top of the organisation and as a leader, you are always responsible for everything that happens in an organisation, whether you were aware of it or not.

You need to be available 24/7 and have the ability to make leadership calls with imperfect and incomplete information, under pressure, with all eyes on you. And then, when it goes wrong (as it might!) be prepared to stand up and take responsibility. Levels of mental illness, substance abuse, divorce and mortality are high; it is all summed up by a quote made to me by a senior Executive Search consultant, who said: “ it is unfathomable to me why anyone would take the [the CEO’s] job!” So before you commit to commencing the journey to the top ask yourself this, “am I prepared to do what it takes to get to and keep the leader’s mantle?” Which segues nicely into the next point…

·  Prepare, prepare, prepare – and then realise, nothing can prepare you for this! 

Before taking on the role, you will need to undertake significant preparation. Not just on the company, you are joining, but on the Board as a whole, senior management and their inter-relationship, staff morale and where the pitfalls might be. But don’t expect to be told what you need to know, you will have to go digging.

Ask the right questions and listen not only to what you are being told but how you are being told it and who is doing the telling. Equally importantly, prepare yourself and those around you for the maelstrom you are about to find your self in. Sit down with your family and friends and let them know what you expect your commitments as a CEO to be (you will be wrong – they are more than you will imagine but it’s a respectful place to start!).

Get fit (or at least fitter) as you will be under constant pressure and fitness helps to alleviate stress whilst giving your mind somewhere to go outside the office. And then, when the day comes and you walk into the CEO suite for the first time or launch your start-up, recognise that nothing prepares you for this!

·  Leadership as Fellowship

Some of the Seven Surprises identified by Harvard Business Review in 2004, include the facts that, as CEO you do not run the company, giving orders is costly and you will not always know what is going on in your organisation, (actually you will hardly ever know exactly what is going on!), and that you are always on! The last one means that you are under constant review, from the most junior staff member to the Chair of the Board, by investors and peers.

To act imperiously and give oxygen to your inner “dictator” is hardly the best way to engender respect and support. Part of what you will be judged on is how you have followed others during your career and into the CEO role. Have you been the loyal “First Lieutenant” faithfully carrying out your commander’s orders and brooking no public dissent notwithstanding your own reservations, or have you hidden in the smoke of the corporate decision-making process, pointing your finger at “higher up’s” for their directions which you all think are silly? If you haven’t been a good follower, you will struggle to make it as a leader.

“You need to work out who you are in this role, what strengths can be burnished, what behaviours might hold you back and what your legacy will look like. If you haven’t done that before the axe falls, you are going to be in a world of pain”.

·  A Graceful Exit

On my first day as a newly minted CEO, I was floored when a mentor of mine phoned and asked if I had figured out want my next job was going to be? “I haven’t even found the bathroom yet” I protested. His response was something that I really should have taken notice of and actioned rather than dumping it in the “Unsolicited Advice” file. “You need to work out who you are in this role, what strengths can be burnished, what behaviours might hold you back and what your legacy will look like. If you haven’t done that before the axe falls, you are going to be in a world of pain”.

Given that the average tenure of CEO’s globally is in the region of 5 years, you have a year to work out your plan, 2 to 3 years to execute it and a year to ensure that your succession plan is up and running. To ensure that your exit is a controlled glide to a flawless landing rather than a smoky death spiral into the hard reality of public perception, this is advice that needs to be respected and, as you develop into your current role, frequently considered.

The path to a graceful exit is often enshrined in the CEO Employment Contract negotiated before joining the company or stepping into the top job. If the key tenets are respected, and a modicum of decorum maintained, handing the baton over will appear (at least to staff and the interested public) to have been a well-executed seamless transition, to the benefit of all involved and affected. 

·  Relevance Deprivation

And now the time has come, you have led the organisation through a perfectly executed strategic pivot and have ridden into the sunset to tumultuous acclaim. You are taking your well-deserved “more time with the family” and seeking to execute on your planned next move following a carefully thought out “what next”. So why are you feeling so bad – disconnected, irritable, unfocused, and lost? Where once your inbox was full of the chatter of a fully functioning corporate entity, there are now unsolicited emails offering a variety of unwanted performance improvements.

Could it be that you are suffering from “relevance deprivation syndrome” common to star athletes, models and high performing business leaders? Have you committed the common but egregious sin of becoming your corporate persona, rather than assuming the CEO mantle when required but able to revert to the “real you” when able and necessary?

To ensure that you don’t set yourself up for the loneliness and disappointment of the “former CEO” label rather than successfully charting a new path, with opportunities and learnings from your previous role, take note of them, take action against those that consistently hold you back, improve your strengths and commit to continuous improvement, for it is only by doing and striving that your future success is assured.   

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