The first emotion leaders experience when they accept their first CEO role is excitement.
The second emotion they experience is fear of failure.
Those reactions are both entirely understandable. CEO’s have all of the responsibility for results, but not all of the control to make them happen. That responsibility to control ratio is inherently uncomfortable. Much fear in life is unwarranted, but in this instance, the fear of failure is not.
In fact, it’s all too realistic: 50% of first time CEOs will fail to be successful in role.
Most of the time, failure in-role is due to a failure to manage change. Here are two ways that failure happens – and advice on how to protect against it.
1. Failure to Adjust Leadership Style to a New Context
Most leaders have the view that their leadership style is fairly fixed. This assumes that the way they lead is inherent to them – their views, their personality, their strengths, and the things that have worked for them in the past.
Unfortunately, that belief is a recipe for disaster in a new role, because a new role is often vastly different from old contexts.
Strong leaders know that their leadership style must be situational – that they must lead in a way that meets the needs of the organization and its people in order to expedite business results.
“A leader who wants to keep the top team in place without considering context may be risking too much.”
A CEO can inherit a range of organizational challenges. He might be tasked with a complete turn-round. Or, she might inherit an organization that simply needs to be continuously improved or made more innovative. These two scenarios require very different leadership styles.
While a turnaround might require a heavy handed, highly decisive leadership approach for some time, a continuous improvement assignment likely requires a leader who can encourage and reward innovation with a more enabling approach to leadership. A leader who mistakenly assumes the helm and pushes for sweeping change before winning over the hearts and minds of the people may create unnecessary noise.
The quantity and pace of change required should be the key driver of the style needed – not personal preference.
2. Failure to Assess the Leadership Team
Failure to assess the leadership team is also a risk. A leader who wants to keep the top team in place without considering context may be risking too much. Similarly, a CEO who comes in and moves most of the seated team out and brings in his or her “own people” may risk alienating leaders the next several layers down.
To avoid failure, don’t come in with a preconception. Instead, assess the talent on the team and gauge the morale to make strategic decisions from there.
- If the team is talented but has low morale, a good CEO will take time to build morale before raising or drastically changing expectations.
- If the team has high morale but is weak on talent, the CEO can develop the talent (if the charter allows time for that) or strategically upgrade talent where it is most needed.
- If the CEO finds the team is low on talent and low on morale, they are best served to move out much of the talent and import fresh, highly skilled talent.
- If (by a stroke of good luck) the CEO finds the talent highly skilled and with high morale, the team will likely be ready for a challenge, and may be ready to embrace significant changes in charter and expectations.
They key is to do a thoughtful assessment of your talent and make changes that are strategic, not reactionary.
To Succeed, Assess and Adapt
Too often CEOs lead in the way that served them in their last roles. The likelihood that this style is precisely right in a different organization with a different team and a different charter is low.
As always, a thoughtful assessment of the charter, the team, and the broader organization will guide the CEO to the style that is required to take the organization from where it is to where it needs to be.
If new CEOs take the time to strategically assess and adapt within the new context, the chances of failure in a new role dramatically decline.