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First-Time CEO: three traps to avoid when the stakes are high

By Sally Henderson, the High-Stakes Leadership Mentor and creator of The Real Method. For over twenty years, Sally has helped c-suite executives in the world’s biggest brands thrive during high-stakes change and leadership transition

The final chapter of this eight-part leadership series and practical mentoring guide for first-time CEOs.

It’s been great to have you with me as we’ve covered:

Session 1 – Permission to be new. You have 90 days to use this power.

Session 2 – The forgotten ceremony that will transform your performance.

Session 3 – Why successful leaders need a job spec.

Session 4 – Recasting relationships now that you’re the boss.

Session 5 – It’s time to ditch your leadership heroes.

Session 6 – Avoid the sinking sand of role creep.

Session 7 – Why leaders should eat first.

To pull the series together, I’m going to share ‘The 3 Cs for Successful Change’.
I created this framework to avoid three traps that can result in failure for a new CEO. 

Trap one – Missing clarity

Clarity on your role and remit makes everything easier for successful change. When you are CEO for the first-time, the stakes are high and it’s natural to rush to get things underway. This is where the cracks start to appear…

I was working with a client who had just been appointed as CEO. Everyone was very happy: my client, their company, and the senior stakeholders who appointed them. They were all keen to announce the appointment to the business asap. 

My advice to the new CEO was to hold back until the newly created role had been better thought through and confirmed amongst the key people. 

Rather than rushing out the announcement (especially in these remote working times), I advised them to take the time to craft strong, compelling and accurate messaging that would set them up as effectively as possible. 

Investing in this deeper clarity transformed how this CEO stepped up into their role and how they were received within the business. In their words: “It made all the difference, and I am so glad we took the extra time to get this really right’.

Ask yourself if you have clarity:

  • about your role
  • on how it has been positioned internally and externally
  • on how you truly feel as you take it on – this is where my tool from The Real Method, The 5 Word Reveal, as shared in Session 7, can provide fast emotional insight.

Trap two– Lacking confidence.

You may think I am crazy because surely anyone who puts themselves up to be CEO oozes confidence. Not the case. I am yet to work with a highly successful CEO who hasn’t lacked confidence in some, or many, areas.

All the time people make assumptions about successful senior leaders: you don’t get stressed, have insecurities, suffer from anxiety or imposter syndrome etc. They forget that we are all human. 

Confidence is critical to leading from the top. An obvious statement to make I know. Let’s do a quick test. Out of 10, not using 7, how confident are you on: 

  • Knowing your purpose as CEO?
  • Clearly being able to share your purpose as CEO with others?
  • Feeling clear about your role and remit as CEO?
  • Understanding your leadership levers, which ones to leave behind, which ones to grow and which ones you need to acquire and by when?
  • Sticking to healthy boundaries both inside and outside of work?
  • What success looks like in your role and the difference between good and great?
  • The tenure you expect to have in this appointment?

What do the numbers show you? Are you confident about your confidence?

Trap 3 – Failure to commit

This is when people really start to scratch their heads. How can a company fail to commit to a new CEO?

A company is committed when: 

  • It takes time to get the brief right before going to market for a new CEO
  • It invests in really good pre-onboarding and onboarding 
  • It proactively invests in your development
  • It champions sticking to healthy work/life boundaries 

Sadly, too many companies don’t do the above and they miss the vital elements we have covered during this leadership series. It’s the very reason I am gifting my advice to help more people and companies thrive at pivotal moments of change. 

How did it go? 

Congratulations, for completing this eight-part series. How do you feel about your leadership? What have you learnt that will help most? Please drop me a line to let me know how you got on and if there are any other topics you would like me to cover. 

Now that you are Confident, Clear and Committed to your first-time CEO role, in my next leadership series we will be exploring how to develop and grow to
Next-level CEO. 

Here’s a taster of what to expect:

  • Are your leadership habits lazy?
  • Why an emotional strategy is as vital as a business plan
  • The brutal edge of work, coping with conflict 
  • Moving on, where next when you are in demand?

If you’ve found this advice useful, please follow me on LinkedIn and share with others who could benefit.

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