First Time CEO Advice That Experienced Leaders Wish They Had Known

September 25, 2020

Case categories include: Executive Development   Founder’s Insights   Leadership   

First Time CEO Advice That Experienced Leaders Wish They Had Known

By Paul Witkay, Founder & CEO, Alliance of Chief Executives

When I formed my first business in 1979, I started by hiring three employees. Shortly after opening, I was hit with my first learning experience. Although two of my hires were top-notch, the third was struggling. After months of trying to help her succeed, I had to face reality: this employee was not a good fit for our company.

Now, 41 years later, I look back on that early realization and wish that someone had been there to navigate the choices with me. How should I break the news to her? What will the other employees think and will they be concerned that they may also be fired?  They surprised me by asking, “What took you so long?”

We’ve all been there, faced with big decisions and feeling alone. Throughout my tenure at the Alliance of CEOs, I’ve come to know that initial struggles and uncertainties like these have often been shared by my fellow leaders. To help you avoid these issues, I’ve written down some of my thoughts as if I were giving a first-time CEO advice. My hope is that these six points will help you lay a strong foundation for long-term success.

First Time CEO Advice for Starting on the Right Foot

As a novice CEO, you are starting on a journey that will be inevitably challenging, yet ultimately rewarding. Looking back on my own leadership path and being familiar with many others, I’ve come to realize that there are some common points that will help you get started on the right foot:

1. Communicate a Compelling Mission That Attracts Talent and Customers

Every enterprise needs to find its own story. Ask yourself, why did you launch your company? What makes it important to you and others? What value are you adding to the world and what’s motivating you to do so?

Reflecting on my own journey, I’ve realized that my motivations for starting the Alliance of CEOs originated from a belief in challenging my own preconceptions and a love of learning. Experiences like going to business school and working with global companies opened my eyes to how diverse the world is. This informed how I explain the mission of the Alliance: we bring leaders together in safe, confidential environments where they challenge their assumptions and generate fresh perspectives and breakthrough ideas by engaging in deep strategic discussions with leaders who bring a wide range of diverse experiences, knowledge and wisdom. Leaders who want to develop their organizations and themselves to the fullest extent possible respond positively to this because it’s incredibly effective and authentic.

If you want to attract a great team and customer base, you need to discover your own story as well. However, I know that’s not always easy. But several strategies may help. I’ve included one below.

A Strategy for Finding Your Own Business Story

One method of exploring your personal business story that can be effective is journaling. Take time each day to write ideas and thoughts down. If you find a consistent theme, this very well could be the basis of the mission you’re seeking. Refine it until it feels right and becomes uniquely yours.

2. Develop Your Plan, Team Roles and Performance Metrics

Once you’ve attracted a team to join your mission, it’s your job to lead them. Ultimately, everyone turns toward the CEO for guidance, and you need to deliver it. Here is a general approach that I’ve used to make sure my communication is as clear as possible:

  • Develop a road map outlining the path from where you are to where you need to go. Be sure to write down the details of your plan to clarify your reasoning. You’ll want to answer all the basics: what, why, and how.
  • Determine individual roles. You will need to communicate this to every member of your team, whether or not it is their direct responsibility. This helps everyone understand both their personal responsibility and how their work contributes to the bigger picture.
  • Set schedules, goals, milestones and tasks. Meet regularly so everyone is in the loop and there are no surprises. Daily huddles are your friend—this will help your teams identify problems early and adjust plans sooner rather than later.

3. Review Results Frequently

A major part of keeping communication clear is having the best possible grasp of your operation. You must first deeply understand the activities and results that will drive your success - your KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). Some CEOs simply focus on gaining new customers and growing revenue, which can cause the organization to use low pricing and marketing promotions that result in unprofitable clients who won't set your company up for longer-term success. Other times, KPIs can be too narrow or reflect changes at too slow of a pace, creating incomplete data as a result. So, you need to find metrics that are absolutely critical for your success.

Once you’re convinced that you have the right KPIs, your entire organization can focus on how to continuously improve the results. Of course, this requires teamwork. After all, building an organization that can rapidly grow sales and profitability requires everyone from R&D, engineering, marketing, sales, finance, and HR to work together. For a team to consistently achieve the desired results, communication is key.

4. Aggressively Listen to Both Customers and Employees

To truly understand the state of your company, you need to constantly be open to honest feedback. This means hearing the good—and the bad—from your clients, as well as your team members.

For customer feedback, surveys can help identify both problems and opportunities. However, it’s also critical that the CEO builds in sufficient time to talk directly with customers to deeply understand why they like or don’t like your product or services. Every comment or criticism can be insightful for fine-tuning parts of your business or generating entirely new approaches. In fact, over the years, I’ve discovered that I often learn the most from relatively disengaged customers as they can have a unique perspective and spark fresh ideas.

Just as important for innovation is an open-door policy with employees. And, an open-door policy doesn’t work without the ability to be open and honest. This means that your team members need to be comfortable sharing their true thoughts with you. You can achieve this by engaging your employees on a regular basis, learning their stories and listening with an open mind. If they just tell you what you want to hear over and over again, your open-door policy will turn into a farce.

5. Create a Results-First Culture

This piece of first-time CEO advice circles back to the mission statement mentioned above. All employees should be working toward your enterprise’s overall goal, not playing politics or looking out for themselves. While avoiding this pitfall largely lies with you firmly communicating the mission, there are also instances when a person just isn’t a good fit. When an employee is no longer aligned with the mission, you must release them from the team.

To avoid creating a self-serving company culture, you need to lead by example and focus on results. Some concrete ways to work toward a results-first company culture include:

  • Share credit with everyone on the team who helped achieve company goals.
  • Don’t point the finger at individuals when goals are not achieved. Bring the team together to discuss how to get back on track.
  • Accept the ultimate blame for any failures.

Remember, you are the leader—you hired the team and you direct the team. So, at the end of the day, you are accountable for what is produced by the team.

6. Move Decisively When Change Is Necessary

As a CEO, there are going to be times when you need to make impactful, quick decisions. Just looking at the current COVID-19 driven business climate shows that this world is unpredictable. For a concrete demonstration of this, look to the graph below detailing how Alliance members have been faring since the start of the pandemic. While these different companies have employed different strategies to improve their situations, most have done so by adapting to the environment and moving quickly and decisively to change their operations.

To be similarly decisive despite uncertainty, you need to know that everyone in your enterprise is focused on your overarching mission. Then, you need to clearly communicate the reason for the changes, why they’re being made, and explain what benefits will arise from the shift.

With clear direction, everyone can pivot together to execute the changes. Without a clear plan that is understood by the entire organization, you will end up with confusion and a lack of optimal productivity.

Being a First-Time CEO Can Be Daunting, But Success is Attainable

Starting out as an inexperienced entrepreneur can be quite an overwhelming experience. This is something I can say from first-hand experience. When I first embarked on my entrepreneurial journey, I made plenty of mistakes and felt the pressure that any novice leader feels when navigating through the unknown. However, four decades later, I can honestly say that everything I’ve experienced in my career has provided me the privilege of working with so many amazing leaders today.

While at first it can be difficult to find your footing as a leader, as long as you stay true to your mission, surround yourself with a great team, and find support amongst other leaders that you can trust, success can be well within your reach.

For more first time CEO advice and other valuable insights from experienced business leaders, contact the Alliance of CEOs today.