6 Tips for the First-time CEO – or One That Is Struggling

Being a CEO of a mid-market company can be a lonely place, especially if it’s your first time as a CEO.

Throughout my career as a mid-market CEO, I’ve experienced most of the ups and the downs:

  • Exhilaration from building a company from the ground up and achieving a successful exit
  • Exhaustion from continual 70-hour work weeks
  • Stress from knowing that everyone is looking to me for the answer when I don’t always have it
  • Loneliness of not having a business colleague to confide to

And when I was starting out in my first role, I also felt the fear of people finding out that I was learning on the job and had a limited idea of what I was doing.

If you’re surprised by that last comment, you shouldn’t be; most CEOs of mid-market companies have the same feeling (at some point) when they’re starting out. They won’t tell you that, because it’s difficult for a leader to be effective when their people don’t know where they’re being led. But they’ll feel it.

The mid-market CEO is much different from the carefully-selected CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. And he’s also different from the latest superstar entrepreneur building a billion-dollar technology company. I discuss these differences in detail in one of my books, ShortTrack CEO, and have found that mid-market CEOs fall into five personas.

And the persona I want to talk about today is the career CEO – and specifically the new CEO within the first three years of taking your first command.

Once you become a CEO, it’s hard to see yourself in another position. You’ve achieved your dream role … but now you have to figure out how to effectively lead your people and your company.

If you’re a new CEO, or an executive with aspirations to become a CEO, I’d like to share some advice from my experiences. These are things that they probably didn’t teach you in your MBA courses:

1. Surround yourself with people that have complementary skill sets. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how many mid-market companies have an executive team with overlapping skills and are missing skills that are critical to building a strong company. Don’t find people just like you; find people that are good at the things that you’re not good at.

2. Understand how to properly communicate with your leadership team. Like #1, this might sound obvious, but it’s critical to know this so you can function as a unit instead of individuals. Communication has become a science not an art and is accomplished by using modern-day validated assessments to understand how your team is motivated, along with the best ways to communicate with them.

3. The easiest way to lead is to have a vision and communicate it often. I addressed this in a recent post.

4. Seek access to capital when you don’t desperately need it. Because when you do desperately need it, you probably won’t be able to get it, or obtain it on favorable terms.

5. Understand the key numbers the drive your business. If you don’t have a strong financial background, hire a strong CFO or a consultant who has the financial modeling tools that will allow you to monitor, in real time, the key numbers to determine the health of your business. In most businesses, you can boil these down to four or five key metrics. Manage those metrics well and you will probably have a very strong business.

6. Commit to learning. This last advice might sound surprising. Many of us think that because you’ve reached the top executive position, you have all the answers. That’s rarely the case. Like I mentioned previously, most first-time mid-market CEOs are learning on the job, because their decades of training are in some other area. To be a good CEO, you have to learn. So embrace it – don’t fear it. Join a CEO organization. Master the five items I mentioned above. Stay current on good business concepts. Maintain a good peer network and learn from your CEO colleagues. Good leaders are always learning; once you stop learning, your leadership ability will start to deteriorate.

And one final tip: Try to find some sort of balance between the all-consuming role as CEO and your personal life.

Work-life balance in leadership groups is a popular topic right now. There are so many suggestions on how to do it, yet many of us fail miserably at it. Find something that works for you. You can’t prioritize the role of CEO over your relationship with your spouse, your kids, your health, your friends and yourself. Most of us find that one or many of these suffer at some point during our CEO tenure, but keep a list of what’s important to you and try to focus on it. Don’t lose sight of the things in life that are extremely important to you.

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