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First Time CEO? Here Are Some Tips to Help Make Your Transition Smooth

There’s a wealth of information available for new CEOs seeking leadership advice. Here are a few points I think are perfect for first-timers.

1. There’s no grace period or training period. Expect to hit the ground running on your first day. In a Wall Street Journal article, Cosi CEO RJ Dourney says he was put under the microscope by a shareholder not five minutes after receiving his title. He thought he would have a few months “under the radar” to get used to the position. Instead, he had to hit the ground running.

2. Lead, don’t do. Something George Bradt, founder of executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis wrote in a Forbes article really resonated with me. He said that, “Long-standing CEOs realize that the less they do themselves, the more they will be able to inspire and enable others.”

3. Nurture, cultivate and manage simultaneously. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, told The Washington Journal that “Good leadership is about encouraging people to do their best while also bringing them into alignment with collective goals.”

4. Focus first on listening. In a Strategy& Q&A with 18 chief executives, Chip Bergh, president and CEO of Levi Strauss, says he spent the first month listening. “I came up with a set of standard questions: What three things must we preserve? What three things must we change? What do you most hope I will do? What are you most concerned I might do?” and What advice do you have for me?” He sent the questions to every board member and to the top 65 people in his company.

5. Keep everything in perspective. Michael Hyatt, the former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, says he is often asked, “Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to a new CEO? In his response, he offers “seven truths” which I think are helpful:

  • Your position is not your identity.
  • Your position is temporary not permanent.
  • Your position is a privilege not a right.
  • Your position is about faithfulness not achievement.
  • Your position is about them not you.
  • Your position is about stewardship not ownership.
  • Your position will require more than you can provide on your own.

6. Maintain your holistic health. The most common point given by other CEOs is to “stay healthy.” Your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health are all paramount to your ability to do your job well. Find time for relaxation, family, fun and personal growth, and you will be ready to take on any job challenge.

Finally, Wall Street Journal reporter Joann S. Lublin, who interviewed Cosi’s Dourney, says that “novice CEOs also find it hard to be bossed by a team—the board of directors—rather than a single supervisor.” So beware of that transition and that it may take some time to get used to.


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