I have been lucky to lead three global companies as CEO from both the USA and UK. But when I cast my mind back to my first CEO gig, where I had been part of the start-up team when the company transitioned from a consulting company to a product company, I can now recognize that I made many mistakes during my early tenure. Thankfully, I think the longer I was a CEO, the fewer mistakes I made! But what would I now tell that younger ‘me’ when I first took the CEO reins? What are the things I would have done to avoid pitfalls and accelerate success? Having reflected, I think there are five key points I’d advise my younger self.
Be decisive, always
A huge factor in delivering success when you first become CEO is to back your judgement and to be decisive. Believe, back yourself to deliver your compelling vision for changing the world of your customers. Stay true to the vision, yourself and never waver. There is a balance between engaging with all stakeholders – especially customers, colleagues, partners, management team – and then determining the best course of action. Decisiveness is one of the key qualities of successful CEOs. It’s so easy to freeze or seek endless analysis that leads to paralysis. There is little value in admiring the problem. At that time, we faced a gorilla competitor who were market leaders – this could have made us fearful but rather, it spurred us on to be smarter, more focused, and better on execution to grow our market share.
Prioritize your time and energy
It’s important to select the most critical and urgent issues for top priority and park or even ignore some of the noise that will inevitably encircle you. If you can keep focused on the top 2-3 priorities, then there is greater momentum having all the ‘wood behind the arrow’. As a first-time CEO, it is almost better to get ‘good enough’ sufficient data (think about the old maxim of 80/20) and then prioritize the best course – make a decision and the forward progress begins. You can then set the sensors on the datapoints to assess the effectiveness of the decision and be adept on course correction of your priorities, as you seek to improve relentlessly.
Ruthlessly hunt for talent
To my mind, Business is a team game and the team loves to win. So, a disproportionate investment of time should be invested in hiring the best team – individually strong, with attitude and of course, team players. There is science to great recruitment. It is also worth using old fashioned ways to verify that your recruits are top performers. Obvious things to do would be to use your network, check in and ask customers that you respect or fellow executives. If you are hiring a head of sales, then in the final interview, ask the candidate to provide a handful of references of recent customers with cellphone numbers. Sometimes, the candidate cannot produce the cellphone numbers there and then – a big red flag. Always speak to these customer references and ask open questions – one of the best is “What would concern you about buying from this individual again?”. Winning comes from being very thoughtful building your top team and incentivizing them for the short- and long-term to make sure they are committed throughout the journey.
On the people side, the importance of culture & organizational fitness, I would argue that there is close to 100% correlation between outstanding people and people processes to commercial success.
Be a positive energy force
Hiring rockstars and becoming a talent magnet is so critical for success. As you grow the company and build the team, it is vital to bring the team with you on the journey and make sure that the team is 100% on the bus. The CEO sprinkles magic dust with a compelling vision but also with the sheer energy that you bring to the task at hand. If you combine this and role model great values where your colleagues LOVE coming to work for you, then you are half-way to being the talent magnet for growth. As I often talk about, the CEO must have the energy to lead the process of building a culture where everyone can be confident to be themselves at work and be at their very best.
Then, the team need to have goals that the Executive Team members understand, support and devise how they make the vision come true with strategies and tactics. The plan needs to suit the team’s capabilities. Using the sporting analogy, the hard lesson comes when the capabilities and tactics need to change from one match to another and even sometimes within the game where adaptability is key. Winning consistently is all about the team and consistency of execution – creating the playbooks to drive the execution ever better. It is worth getting your team to drive all their functions as hard as you drive sales and prioritise marketing, sales and product management as the lens on the customer need. It is arguably more important to get the right people on the bus than be precise on the end destination – again, A class strategy with B class execution is always inferior to B class strategy and A class execution.
Based on my years of experience, these are five tips that I believe will help any first time CEO. But I would also advocate that any new CEO considers getting a good mentor and personal coach; someone who has no axe to grind and only has your best interests at heart. I know I would have benefitted from such a figure when I first took on responsibility of CEO, if only to help me make the right decisions, quickly. Being a new CEO is a hugely challenging experience but it’s also massively gratifying and, dare I say it, great fun building something special. Good luck with your adventures!
Stephen Kelly is a successful serial CEO with unique experience in FTSE100 & Nasdaq companies – created $7bn+ of combined market value increase. As CEO of Sage, MicroFocus and Chordiant, Stephen built strong growth cultures. He served as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the UK Government. Follow him @SKellyCEO