Throw any romantic notions out the window: Advice for first-time CEOs

What is the most common route to becoming one of Britain’s top bosses? And does age or gender boost your chances? These were the questions Robert Half asked during its annual “FTSE 100 CEO Tracker”.

What it found – in comparison to The Guardian suggesting those named John or David were likely to make it to the top – was that having a financial background counted for something if you wanted to be part of the C-suite. Most bosses also chose to work in an industry they previously worked in.

This, according to Alan Potts, CEO of CoachDirectors, highlighted that those in the FTSE 100 had been appointed due to their knowledge and experience – something first-time CEOs should do well to note. As such, preparation is key. He said: “Almost every CEO I’ve known who has reported back on that first experience has said there was nothing in their previous career that had prepared them.The complexity and the number of things they have to juggle or balance can be a shock.”

On the contrary, Karen Firestone, CEO of Areus Asset Management, claimed bosses should never believe they know everything they’re getting into. “At the beginning I expected certain things to be tough, and they have been,” she said. “But there have been numerous surprises along the way. Personally, I was surprised by how much selling I would have to do as CEO. I was also startled to learn how much my attitude still sets a tone around the office.”

That being said, here are a few tips to get the ball rolling.

Acquaint yourself with more than one leadership style

When you’re dealing with ongoing challenges and changes, sticking to purely one leadership style may land you in hot water. And according to psychologist Daniel Goleman, there are six different types: visionary, coaching, affiliative, democratic, pace-setting and commanding.

While it pays to find out which one comes most natural to you, it should also be said that leadership can and should be situational, depending on the needs of the team. Sometimes the team needs a visionary, a new style of coaching or even a swift kick to the proverbial shins if they don’t deliver. For that reason, great leaders choose their leadership style like a golfer chooses his or her club.

And learning each style, said Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder of the Blackstone Group, means taking a different route in your journey. During a speech at the London School of Economics, he explained: “No one is born a CEO; if you go to one of those great genome centres, not one of those traits has ‘CEO’ on a gene. It’s learned behaviour – for everybody. They come aggressive, they come quiet, short and tall, they come assertive and collaborative. What’s important is for a founder to recognise what they’re good at and what the firm needs.”

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Further advice peppered his speech, in which he claimed you should learn to recognise your weaknesses, always enlist the help of others, and throw any romantic notions about leadership out of the window. “Sometimes in a classic model, you have the half-wacky entrepreneur who goes out and takes enormous risk, somehow survives it and can’t handle people, can’t manage anything… and they have to be rescued by the CEO.”

The challenges to overcome

Tim Morris, professor of management at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, explained the rise in recent ethical scrutiny meant CEOs now have to be more transparent – or face the consequences of a Twitter riot. 

So how do CEOs develop the skills they need to lead when the entire globe seems to be breathing down their necks? To answer that very question, the business school spoke with 152 business leaders to underscore the ways in which the role of top dog is changing, and point to the capabilities that can help bosses thrive in a business environment marked by economic uncertainty.

The report emphasised the need for leaders to be “more human” and accessible to staff by surmising the role into one word: “chief emotional officer”. Morris also claimed it was important to see that the role was “not just about rational decision-making but engagement with people.”

There are also challenges to be had, he said. For example, having the ability to balance being approachable and retaining your authenticity. “Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder,” said Morris. “I may think I am authentic, while you may think I’m being utterly inauthentic. Chief executives deal with that by going back to a sense of individual purpose: what am I achieving and why.”

Furthermore, it was suggested that most first-time CEOs didn’t realise is how lonely it would be at the top, and that you would instantly feel a shift in terms of the feedback you would receive. “A lot of people will tell you what you want to know rather than what you need to know,” Potts said. “People are reticent to give you challenging feedback. It’s hard for a CEO to get to the absolute truth. Even your business partner will have reasons for not being brutally honest.”

Image: Shutterstock

Meanwhile, with the UK breathing down Sam Allardyce’s neck to bring the somewhat deflated England football team back to life, we spoke to Peter Istead, managing director for Hudson, to find out what mindset attributes he will require in order to succeed.

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