Challenges Of The Top Job: CEOs Reflect

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Imagine you showed up for work at a new position and found the business required much more than your skills; it demanded your personal transformation.

That’s what chief executives told us the experience is like in the top job.

We interviewed more than 400 CEOs who responded to our global survey, The CEO: A Personal Reflection. They came from various industries, countries and corporate structures. They shared how they felt about the realities of the role, their preparation, their succession planning process, and how they lead and cope in these volatile times.

This demand for personal adaptation is one that many CEOs in our survey said came as a surprise. They told us that they have had to transform themselves while also transforming the business – a dual process they underestimated. More than half told us transitioning into the role of CEO required an intense period of personal reflection – one in which issues of trust, honesty, purpose and personal sacrifice were examined. Many of the personal comments the CEOs gave us reflected the realization that a personal adaptation – once in the job – was critical to overall success. This job, they told us, is not just about hitting the numbers.

“As CEO, I need the capacity to transform myself as well as my organization.”

“[It’s about] stepping back and reflecting. Acknowledging that I do not have all the answers and do not need to have them.”

“This job demands more patience than what I expected. I think one has to go through a maturity cycle.”

Ultimately, our CEOs reported, the job is not just about “doing.” It is also about “being.” Being patient. Being present. Being self-aware. Being willing to transform and adapt and reflect in order to provide necessary leadership during times of great change, turbulence and expectations.

Preparation: The Good and the Bad

Still, not all the work of the CEO is introspective. CEOs told us they tapped their years of experience and training to execute the leadership role.

Can you truly prepare to be a chief executive? Our CEOs said yes in some ways, but not in others. 80% of respondents indicated that they felt either “somewhat” or “fully” prepared for their current role. They were happy to share the type of preparation they found most helpful: ongoing feedback from direct reports, boss, and peers provided the most useful prep, according to 31% of respondents; 16% pointed to job rotation and the experience that provided, and just 8% of respondents cited leadership development programs.

But while respondents believed they were well schooled in the technical aspects of leadership, many found the human side more challenging. One area of preparation our CEOs found lacking revolved around organizing and motivating people. Half said it was hard to drive cultural change. Nearly 50% found it more difficult than expected to cultivate a high-performing senior leadership team. More than one-third found it tough to manage the impact on personal and family life; 48% said finding time for reflection was a challenge. While most took the job expecting a huge business challenge, many were surprised to find the biggest hurdles were human. Their experiences indicate that CEOs could benefit from more training in interpersonal skills.

The Takeaway

We believe personal growth and self-reflection are critical for upcoming as well as current CEOs because the role is increasingly complex and demanding. We also believe that the current spectrum of preparation efforts and programs for up-and-coming CEOs focuses on “doing” rather than “being.” To be sure, traditional preparation gleaned from job rotations and mentors remains critically important. Still, preparation and coaching for the personal, adaptive demands of the job will go a long way towards setting new leaders up for success.

What’s more, we see an additional role for the board in the CEO experience. Few of our CEOs looked to their boards for support during the transformational first year – and that lack of communication may be a mutual problem. Boards too often focus on the CEO’s personal and professional development during a succession process and then retreat. They may only reappear as an active consultative force if there is a disruptive event, such as poor performance or an ethical issue. Board members can expand their connection to CEOs to provide ongoing, rather than occasional input.

Ultimately, especially in unpredictable times, the best way to prepare leaders for the top role is to help them adopt a mindset of constant personal growth. They must embrace curiosity, learning, adaptability, and the ability to influence culture and build strong teams. New conditions and opportunities demand that they leave their comfort zone—and that they understand that no one, not even the chief executive, has all the answers.

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