We’ve all seen the signs of a floundering first-time CEO: leadership attributes and behaviors we can all agree are not only ineffective but sometimes harmful. Although well-intended, there are four damaging leadership attributes and behaviors first time CEOs often display:
• Over-helping: First time CEOs are often eager to help their new teams gain trust and build relationships. However, this instinct can occasionally turn into over-helping, which often becomes micromanaging or functional leadership.
• Egocentrism: Perhaps born from a fear of failure or insecurity, first-time CEOs often fall into the trap of being driven by their egos. They take on the hero mentality and the accompanying sense of martyrdom.
• Overcapacity: While CEOs should be eager to get involved, they shouldn’t book themselves over capacity. Frequently, first time CEOs try to do so much they become frantic and unavailable. At the worst of times, this devolves into seagull management.
• Ambiguity: At the start of a first time CEO’s tenure, it may seem like the game is moving too fast. As such, the organization may suffer from an unclear vision, strategy and culture. This can manifest in slow or poor decision making and living in ambiguity.
I have coached many first-time CEOs, but one client in particular represented these four ineffective, harmful behaviors and attributes. Bob had an impeccable background in the building products industry, having risen across functions in various organizations before taking on a COO role. He had a tier 1 MBA and had worked on three continents. At 45 years old, he seemed like the perfect candidate. When a former boss and chairman of the board offered him an opportunity to interview for a CEO role, Bob impressed everyone and ultimately landed the job.
His new management team was a blend of tenure and youth, with the new organization positioned for growth. Bob’s first 30 days were a blur, and upon his return from a conference, the first wave of challenges hit.
First, Bob’s executive administrator departed the company to follow her previous boss. Second, he was asked to join a sales review where the national accounts team was having profound challenges. Third, the CRM implementation was put on hold until Bob was on board, so he needed to learn and get on board with the process. Fourth, he and his board were concerned with a pre-existing major lawsuit, and there were two acquisitions that needed his attention. Fifth, he called the call center one night and was placed on hold for 17 minutes before being dropped — twice! Finally, Bob’s head of HR retired, and his head of marketing was in severe conflict with the product development leader, resulting in two “concrete” silos.
In the face of all these challenges, Bob remained strong and eager. He came to the office by 6:30 a.m. and never left before 7:30 p.m. It seemed to him all was broken, and he was singularly accountable for what seemed to be a landslide of problems.
Bob set about to fix it all. Over the next month, he demonstrated his sales prowess, drew a new process and national accounts strategy up, and demanded the CRM be implemented — or else. Bob canceled a family vacation because “it wasn’t a good time,” and his wife and kids were missing him. He stopped exercising and became moody. Bob demonstrated such poor impulse control that the board of directors received several emails stating key talent was leaving, the strategy was as unclear as ever, and Bob seemed overwhelmed and in over his head. When Bob’s mentor and chairman offered him a coach, he refused. He was offered assistance to recruit a new CHRO, which he also refused because “he didn’t have the time.” The CRO resigned due to Bob’s behavior. Eventually, Bob was terminated on the six-month anniversary of his hiring.
Unfortunately, Bob’s story is all too common. What can we do to help the first-time CEO and limit the damage that can be done?
1. Build your board of directors. This is not the actual board of directors but, rather, a personal BOD. Additionally, CEOs should focus on the buildout of the executive and L2 teams, so they can direct team members to work on the business. By working at the process level to increase the processes and focus of those teams, CEOs are working on the business, which is dramatically different from the way Bob worked in the business.
2. Consider executive coaching. Bob was, is, and could be a high performer. However, he was using the wrong calculus for high performance. High performance is calculated by enterprise leadership and leading leaders versus actual functional contribution. Coaching can help this re-setting, increase one’s self-awareness, and limit the impact of the bias on decision making. Coaching can also help leaders increase their emotional intelligence, which is highly correlated with leadership effectiveness.
3. Prioritize the four to six greatest value drivers for the business. Using the “VRR” framework, a CEO can clearly articulate primary value drivers, risks and products, services and culture to increase relevance for customers and employees.
4. Develop an inclusive process to establish the infrastructure. To work on the business and not in the business, CEOs must develop the organization’s executive infrastructure, rhythm and prioritization. This is most effectively done by clarifying the culture, vision, strategy, operating mechanisms, and even a corporate calendar.
“Not working in the business” is foreign and unnatural to first time CEOs. Helping first-time CEOs adjust their effort to work on the enterprise, and not in the functions, is a critical step in this journey. By identifying specific developmental opportunities and addressing these early on, we can best prime first time CEOs for success.
By Michael Brainard