The Boardroom series: Are you ready to become a CEO?

Described as the “most powerful and sought-after title” in an organisation, the CEO controls the company’s biggest moves, is responsible for everything from setting the strategy to shaping the culture, and, reportedly, accounts for 45% of a company’s performance. This role can be stressful, and it can also be exciting and rewarding.

I propose that for most of us, in at least one area of our lives, we play a similar role – being responsible for major decisions and playing a pivotal role in shaping the culture – whether that be as a parent, in your sports team, or simply as CEO of your own life. With that in mind, I believe that almost everyone could learn something from Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller and Vikram Malhotra’s book CEO Excellence

I have to say, I approached this book with some scepticism, expecting another book about leadership which focused on technical capabilities, ways to persuade the unpersuadable, and the importance of innovation. I was wrong. This book was a breath of a fresh air, and, in this article, I am going to tell you what made me change my mind. I am also going to give you a few simple ways to take their research and start cultivating your own CEO Mindset, in your work, family, or as CEO of your future.

Why was this book so refreshing…

This book drew on 67 interviews with CEOs to identify the mindsets that enabled these CEOs to thrive, and then offered 18 practices to cultivate these. This narrative approach enabled the authors to really understand the human side of being a CEO, echoing many of the sentiments shared by the CEO’s whom I spoke in my 2019 – 2020 Sustainable Leadership study; the loneliness of leadership, the internal pressure to be ‘superhuman’, the journey of learning to focus on what only you can do.

While not overlooking the technical, management, and innovations skills required, the authors managed to marry these with some of the more complex, and arguably more challenging aspects of being a CEO; How can one demonstrate strength and inspire confidence whilst retaining humility and accepting vulnerability? How do we drive performance and results, without forgetting the individual needs of the people in our organisations? How do we optimise and sustain psychological wellbeing in the workplace, for ourselves as leaders and those around us?

Clearly presenting the business case for mental fitness as a key skill of a successful CEO, and the foundation of a thriving business, and offering insights into how to ensure you are fit to lead, I suggest every leader or future leader would benefit from reading this book. 

In the meantime, drawing on the messages from this book and our research, here are 3 ways we suggest you can cultivate your CEO mindset, regardless of your formal business role.

What is success?

The idea of having a company vision or purpose is not revolutionary. On the contrary, it may seem obvious. Having said that, very few people spend as long exploring and articulating their own, personal definition of success before them embark on seeking it. 

As I wrote in 2019, career paths are, more often than not, laid out before us, rather than being something we intentionally carved out. This is particularly relevant for CEOs, who are invited to be a CEO, rather than applying for the role, as we do for most other positions in a business.

Understanding what the term ‘success’ means to you is essential in any leadership role. A simple way to clarify this for yourself, is imagine a magazine article is being written about you 5 or 10 years from now, sharing the narrative of your career.  

  • How would your ideal career journey be described?
  • Who would be mentioned in this story – clients, colleagues, mentors, family, friends?
  • Why was this path the one you chose?
  • What helped you along the way? And was there anything you had to give up to make this a reality?
  • Where are you heading now?

You can write this in any way you choose; an interview, biography, or autobiography; a written or audio piece; alone or with a coach to prompt your thinking. 

I encourage you to be idealistic in what is possible, don’t underestimate yourself, and realistic in what might need to be done, what support might be needed, or what might need to be given up, to make this a reality.

Board dynamics

Most leaders understand the importance of ensuring their teams work together effectively towards a common goal, even if they still struggle to make this a reality at times. As Carolyn, Scott and Vikram articulated, this is about putting “team dynamics ahead of mechanics”.

What is too often forgotten is the importance of the board also committing time to ensure they are working together, not just alongside each other. Over the last year, my work with boards has become more and more focused on this task and it continues to be one of the biggest challenges for many otherwise successful organisations. If this is not addressed, a small crack at board level can lead to shattering results for the business.

To start exploring this with your team, here are some initial questions to ask:

  • How do the company mission and values relate to us as individuals? What do they mean to us and why is this important to us, individually?
  • What is the role of a leader in the context of a senior leadership team? What do we see as each of our three core priorities within this team?
  • How are we demonstrating our company values in the way we work with each other? 
  • How can we support each other to do so, or hold each other accountable to do so?
  • If we could each have 1 wish for the board, and how we work together, what would that be?

Whether it be in regular board meetings, or at strategy away days, it is essential to commit time to the relational aspect of the board. Doing so build trust, efficiency, and ensures the business can fully benefit from the diverse perspectives and knowledge of your board members.  

Like all relationships, we cannot take them for granted. They take an investment of effort, and, however strong they are to start with, there is usually an opportunity to make them even more effective and fulfilling.

Managing personal effectiveness

“You are an equal stakeholder in your business. If you don’t nurture yourself, the job of CEO is not going to get it done well.” This understanding was articulated to me in my research of 2019, and it is reiterated in this book. It is so easy, and common, that in leadership roles we get swept away in looking after others and forget the importance of investing in ourselves.

Whether you are a CEO, COO, or CFO, or you have taken on another leadership role, you will need to adapt to manage new responsibilities, challenges, and opportunities. It is likely that you are exposed to new information, that the impact of your decisions ripples to touch more people, and that you are under more scrutiny for the results. 

To meet these demands, leaders need to ensure that they have the cognitive and physiological resources to think and act at their best. This not only requires time management, it relies on energy management, meaning that sleep, recovery time, and time alone for reflection, are all equally important tasks on a CEO’s daily “to do” list. Successful CEO’s set a pace that they can sustain for a marathon-length effort, not just a sprint.

Top tips to improve your energy management are:

  • Prioritise sleep as a necessity, not a luxury. It is arguably one of the most crucial ingredients in ensuring your brain can function effectively, especially when the pressure is on. If you are not convinced, read Matthew Walker’s book “Why we sleep?” – it will change your life.
  • Get to know your chronotype and then plan when tasks should be done to optmise output and return on your energy investments.
  • Know what work you need to do, that no one else is equipped to do? Be brutally honest with yourself when doing so. You might enjoy doing some tasks, or think you can do something better than others’, however that does not mean it is essential for you to do it. Knowing when to step back from doing is crucial to success.
  • Solicit help, whether it be in the form of a mentor, coach, other board members, or executive networks. You are not superhuman and you don’t need to be. Enlisting the help of others is likely to enhance engagement and buy in from those individuals as well as enable you to perform at your best.
  • Never stop learning. A leadership role is a journey, not a destination. To paraphrase Ray Dalio, we should all aim to look back at ourselves a year from now and think, “wow, how stupid I was.” That is a sign we are growing wiser and moving towards your vision of success.

Final thoughts

However prepared we think we are in life, we can never truly know what lies ahead. Having said that, developing the personal leadership skills that are required to be a CEO or leader in advance increases our likelihood of success. And it is never too early to start that journey.

I have a network of fantastic coaches who I have worked and studied with over the years so, if you are ready to start that journey for yourself, please feel free to reach out and I will connect you with them.

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