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4 hurdles facing the first-time CEO

A veteran CEO offers advice for those leading a company for the first time.

6 min read



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The job of CEO is both very challenging and very different from other executive roles. It turns out that leaders who step into the job for the first time often get a quick dose of reality: According to one recent survey, 68% of CEOs admitted that, in hindsight, they were not fully prepared for the role.

The CEO’s job will always be a high-stakes position for which most people will lack training. However, as someone who has been a CEO for well over two decades, I often advise new and aspiring chief executives on the challenges they can expect in the corner office. Here are four hurdles every leader faces as they transition into responsibility for the entire organization.

Hurdle No. 1: Accepting the burden of command

The first hurdle of the first-time CEO is what I call the burden of command. It’s the realization that there is no man behind the curtain. Everything comes down to you.

Once you become CEO, you own everything that happens in the company regardless of whether you had anything to do with it. If a sales target is missed, that’s your responsibility, even if you don’t know the first thing about sales. Plus, dozens, hundreds or even thousands of employees are relying on your leadership for their livelihood and sense of pride in their work.

Adding to the burden of command is the fact that all eyes are on the CEO. New CEOs are frequently shocked at the sudden reverence employees give them. Their jokes are funnier, and no one wants to give them bad news. The public is now watching you like a hawk, too, and you are always one careless tweet away from disgrace.

This is tough reality that takes some getting used to. The best way to bear the burden of command is to work on the three Cs every CEO must have to succeed: credibility, competence, and caring.

Hurdle No. 2: Admitting ignorance

By the time you become a successful executive, you have typically mastered a specific domain of business — finance, sales, marketing, etc. But the day you become CEO, you can no longer operate as a specialist. You must become a generalist. You are now responsible for the whole organization.

This means that you will encounter many areas of the business that you don’t know much about. Inevitably, there are going to be moments where one of your executives is telling you something you don’t understand, or you are asked to make a decision you don’t feel qualified to make.

The natural reaction for most humans in these situations would be to say: “I don’t know.” Many new CEOs avoid doing that, thinking they must prove they are the smartest person in the room.

But I always tell new CEOs tha,t a lot of times, “I don’t know” is the right answer. The best CEOs say “I don’t know” all the time. Admitting ignorance is far better than pretending you know something you don’t, or failing to learn something valuable from an expert employee.

Hurdle No. 3: Shifting to a future mindset

Before you get to the role of CEO, you spend most of your time analyzing the past and dealing with issues in the present. But once you become CEO, your primary domain is the future. You must keep your eyes on the road ahead at all times, ensuring that the organization is headed toward the desired future.

As a new CEO, you will feel the pressure of endless demands on your time, including new fires to put out and piles of historical data to sift through. However, it’s critical to carve out time for the future-oriented tasks that no one else in the company can do: establishing a compelling strategy and vision, translating these into clear goals for the organization and communicating constantly about them.

Hurdle No. 4: Hiring and managing executives

As mentioned earlier, the transition to CEO means taking responsibility for domains of the business you do not have full mastery of. But there is a second, related challenge: you also must hire and manage the executives who lead those parts of the company.

If you rose through the ranks as a sales leader, will you know how to select a great candidate to head up your HR function? Or vice versa? Probably not.

Hiring great executives is an art, and the new CEO should not let others handle it just because he can’t judge candidates on their technical expertise. Instead, look for signs of general leadership ability in previous roles. One of my favorite signs of a good executive, for example, is that people from her previous company are eager to follow her to a new one. That tells me a lot about a person’s ability to lead effectively. Another good practice is to pick the brains of the employees this candidate would lead in your organization. Do they find this person credible and competent? Would they enjoy working for this person?

An additional challenge is acting as the manager of your executive team. To be sure, you don’t need to take a hands-on approach, and hopefully you won’t need to train them on how to do the work. However, it is still your responsibility as CEO to manage your executives. The best approach, in my experience, is question-based coaching. Ask thoughtful questions of your executives, including:

  • What are your priorities this quarter?
  • Why did you choose those priorities?
  • What are you going to do to follow through on them?
  • What are the best metrics for me to use to measure your performance?

You can also coach them on general leadership ability. How effectively do they contribute during meetings of the executive team? How are they perceived by the rest of the organization?

By enumerating some of the greatest hurdles in the transition to the CEO role, I do not mean to discourage anyone from pursuing the job. While challenging, it’s also a highly rewarding role that offers you the chance to make a positive difference in many lives. Good luck.


Joel Trammell is founder of Khorus, CEO of Black Box Network Services, co-founder and managing partner of Lone Rock Technology Group, and author of “The CEO Tightrope.” Contact him at @TheAmericanCEO or by email