At the Head of the Table

PLC Director Magazine

Taking on the role of CEO for the first time is a step into the unknown for many says Stephen Schneider

Nothing can prepare you for the experience of stepping into the chief executive's shoes for the first time. Regardless of previous experience, you will instantly be expected to get to grips with a completely different set of problems ranging from dealing with isolation, soliciting sound, unbiased advice and understanding that the buck stops – or should stop – with you.

And just as you prepare to step into the most demanding and high-profile job of your career, your former peer group - and the support that goes with it - disappears. Alone, you must take up the mantel of leadership and make it appear effortless. Jack Welch once said ‘I get paid a lot of money for making three big decisions every year’ – the point being that he enjoyed the responsibility, but knew how to separate what was important from mere detail.


So what is it that separates those CEOs who thrive in their role from those who don't? And what exactly are the skills and attributes that will enable a chief executive to work to maximum effect?


Success lies in the ability (or otherwise) of individuals coming new to the role to understand what it is they have inherited and then to work out a way of moving the organisation continually from A to B. A good starting point for a new CEO is to invest time gathering evidence from staff and customers. To understand their inheritance, the CEO needs to listen deeply to how people inside and outside the organisation describe it. The most successful CEOs often disappear into the belly of the organisation for the first few months. Jack Welch, for example, did nothing but interview people for the first six months at GF.


It is the CEO's task to identify the key 'developmental themes' for the organisation, to move it forward - and to explain this to others in a way that answers their instinctive response ‘why change?’. This key task for the CEO is about creating a ‘route map’ for others, describing the journey that the organisation is about to embark upon and obtaining their buy-in. The purpose of the map is to enable the CEO to articulate key messages on a continuing basis, that provide a compelling logic as to why and how things need to be different – and that wins over hearts and minds.


The requirement to become a deep listener described above calls on a talent alien to many who rise to the top. Indeed, many CEOs make a point of not listening to others. According to American management guru Warren Bennis, ‘Deep listeners abandon their ego to the talent of others’. CEOs need to hear from those – who are often deep within the ranks of the organisation – who know what needs to be done. In other words, they need to listen not just to the top team, but to the entire organisation. Indeed, they need to allow information to filter up through the organisation so the top team can become aware of the issues affecting the business.


The CEO must also reflect on the issues, before rushing to action. They need to 'sit back' absorb and analyse the situation which confronts them. Not everyone stepping into the top role has, by nature, the necessary temperament or skills to do this. Indeed, often one of the hardest tasks for successful business leaders, who have risen to the top precisely because of an enhanced ability to drive others to get things done, is to sit back, live comfortably with ambiguity and uncertainty, and resist the urge constantly to rush to early conclusions.


Another key point for the new CEO is to realise that the role is less about their own performance and more about getting the best out of others. As well as taking the time to listen to others, the CEO must create the space and place in which others can perform. Again, this can be counter-intuitive for many stepping into the top role. It is well known that ‘narcissistic personalities’ often rise to the top. These are people deeply centred on self and their own performance – as if on a stage. They often have an indefinable ’star quality’ or ‘magic powder’ that is highly valuable to the business. They can often make great leaders because they have compelling visions for their companies and an ability to attract follwers, but these powerful attributes can be a double-edged sword. While narcissists are able to inspire people to follow them through their vision and charisma, these very traits can disempower those working closely with them.

There is an interesting question here around ‘charisma’ – the special quality that supposedly marks out leaders. In fact, the reverse is often true as charisma can hinder success in the top role. Where the task is to open up the way for others to perform, an overwhelming personal style can disable rather than motivate those around them.


In many ways the CEO’s role can be likened to that of an orchestral conductor, whose job it is to bring together musicians to achieve something that is greater than all of them. As the conductor works with different sections – each with their own leader – so the CEO manages the company through a team, often geographically dispersed with different languages and cultures.

Additionally, CEOs must be able to select the right team, surround themselves with people who see the world as they see it, who passionately believe in their ’symphony’ and who spread their message throughout the organisation about why and how certain things need to be different.


With the average age of newly appointed CEOs falling, individuals are taking on these top roles much earlier in their careers than the previous generation. Often appointed because of high intellect and technical ability, they may lack the wisdom and experience needed to pull together the entire organisation in pursuit of new objectives.

Support is therefore imperative. This can take the form of a combination of internal and external mentoring and coaching support – with the chairman of the board often playing a key role. Any external support is best provided by professionals, who have the skills to identify and work with behavioural aspects of leadership. There are often unconscious dynamics at play that have the capacity to block an individual’s progress and, in turn, reduce their effectiveness in being able to perform the role. By embarking on a journey of prompted discovery, a new CEO can learn to add to their skillset and adjust their personal style to take into account any new behaviours required to make a success of the role and a positive contribution to the business.