Three CEOs discuss common issues that can plague first-timers.
People reach the CEO chair in various ways. Many take on the CEO title because they start a business. Others are selected for the position after demonstrating significant expertise in a particular functional area of a business.
No matter how they become a CEO or whether they hail from engineering, marketing, sales or another area, few are prepared for the CEO role’s unique responsibilities and challenges.
Here are three surprises that await first-time CEOs when they start the job.
There’s a Huge Gap Between Being #1 and #2
Even people who have served as second-in-command to a CEO, such as co-founders and other C-level executives, find they are not 100 percent prepared for the onslaught of issues that confront them as a CEO.
Jim Whitehurst went from managing a staff of 80,000 employees as COO of Delta Airlines to less than 2,000 people when he became CEO of Red Hat, a provider of open-source enterprise IT products and services.
“What I didn’t realize is there is a massive difference between being number one and number two,” said Jim. “Even though I ran Delta’s day-to-day operations as COO, there was someone else behind the curtain somewhere. When you’re the CEO, you are the person behind the curtain. There is no one else.”
He also asserts, and I agree, that running a smaller organization is not necessarily easier than running a larger one.
People Treat You Differently
Another big disparity Jim experienced between being the CEO’s right-hand man vs. being the CEO himself is how people treat you. New CEOs are often surprised at how people react to them. They are seen as having all the answers. People laugh harder at their jokes. Their every move is suddenly scrutinized.
“It’s a very odd feeling. You start to notice people looking at you differently, interacting with you differently,” said Jim. “Little things like using a Styrofoam cup, all of a sudden people will see you doing that and decide you must not care about the environment. Everything you do is suddenly under a microscope, being picked apart. It is so true as CEO, and less true at number two. I can’t emphasize enough how big a difference that is, and I didn’t appreciate it until I was sitting in the chair.”
Your Background Can Be a Limitation
Many first-time CEOs get the job because they have performed spectacularly in their previous positions. However, if that experience is too narrowly focused, it can also hold them back. Gene Austin, CEO of Bazaarvoice, a smart network of consumers, brands, and retailers, found his background in engineering, sales, and marketing valuable but limited in terms of customer dynamics.
“I spent many years in the sales and marketing arena with HP, Sequent, and Dell learning how to successfully (and in some cases, unsuccessfully) take products to market with large sales teams,” said Gene. “This background serves me well as a CEO in many ways, but it didn’t give me the full breadth of a customer lifecycle.”
He said he had to proactively insert himself into roles to lead product development and, in some cases, client services and support. This helped him fully grasp how to best build successful client relationships and roll out new or enhanced offerings.
“There is a lot more to success than building a great product, slapping a price on it, and training the sales team to attack,” continued Gene.
Tom Galvin, CEO of video surveillance appliance maker Razberi Technologies, also came to the CEO chair via the engineering route and found some limitations in his early leadership approach.
“Particularly for me as someone with more of a technology background, I went into the CEO role thinking a great product will self itself,” said Tom. “What I’ve learned is that on the sales and marketing side it’s essential to have a strong plan in place and the right people on board to develop your channel and your message to the marketplace.”
Anyone who aspires to be a CEO should understand that the position is unique in business. While nothing can fully prepare you for it, you can take steps to understand the responsibilities of a CEO, examine and hone your skills, talk to those who have CEO experience, and find a good mentor.
First appeared on Inc.com