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The adage ‘it is lonely at the top’, although often overused, proves too true for many business leaders. Once at the top few people truly can be used as a sounding board. Being appointed CEO means taking on the public persona of the organisation and, as we have seen recently, becoming the public whipping boy when things go wrong. All this comes with immense pressure.  

However, not everyone can become a CEO - it takes a fair amount of hard work, initiative and a good amount of luck. Criticaleye partnered with Penna, the leading global management consultancy, to research, interview and film experienced CEOs about their aspirations to become a CEO and what the position is really like.

Once you become CEO, you join a very small group and often have no peers. You very quickly become leader to those that were once your colleagues. Our research with Penna reiterates the sentiments of you, our Executive Community, and why our network of leaders exists. Providing you with a supportive environment where you can interact with your peers is of the utmost importance to us.

In addition to the research outtakes from the individuals below,  we interviewed Sir Brian Bender, former Permanent Secretary, Peter Horrocks, BBC, Daryl Eales, LDC and Brendan Hynes, Nichols plc for films that will be released in the coming months.

“I never aspired to be a CEO, which is probably why I am one now. I always wanted to be able to contribute, make a difference, and what I found out early on is that I was a good leader, good at multitasking, able to balance a lot of things and a good problem solver. When I became CEO of Barclays Retail, I had a particular skill set and track record in retail banking that they wanted,” asserts Deanna Oppenheimer, CEO, Barclays Retail.

It is important not to pass up opportunities when they come along says Richard Laing, CEO, CDC. “I’m the sort of individual that gets bored easily and always needs a challenge. Therefore, throughout my whole career, I’ve always been looking forward and asking myself what I am going to do next. Where is this role going? I don’t think people should be at all shy about jumping at opportunities when they come, it doesn’t all have to be terribly planned; when an opportunity comes just go for it.”

Once the position has been offered and accepted, the first 100 days can be trying as you are now at the helm of the ship. “The great advice that I was given when I joined Halfords was not to move too quickly, don’t feel that you have to make an immediate impression,” said David Wild, CEO, Halfords. “The first hundred days is about understanding the business. You do this by taking a view of all stakeholders, whether it’s customers, colleagues, investors or the media. You have to take the time to understand their perspective and then form your view. If you react too quickly and start making changes quickly, you’ll make mistakes. Take time to formulate a clear plan and communicate it.”

Although all the CEOs we spoke to made it through many wished that they had more support in those first days and found that the reality of being chief executive differed from the idea.  “I guess something that confronts you when you walk in on day one, or get told you’ve got the job, is the gap that suddenly opens up between you and the rest of the organisation. Suddenly, in many ways, you are on your own. The organisation, your stakeholders and customers then look to you as the personification of the organisation,” says Tim Matthews,CEO, Remploy.

Steve Easterbrook, Chief Executive, McDonald’s UK, who had been working for the company for 12 years before he was appointed CEO, was struck by the sudden onslaught of external pressure. “The thing that has taken me by surprise has been the external expectations. And that was a totally new area for me, so I’ve had to learn how to deal with that very quickly and it's something I needed development on.”

As the marketplace becomes ever more globalised the role of CEO is changing. So, what are the critical talents, strengths and values needed to be a successful leader?

Andy Bond, CEO, Asda, says, “For me the model I use it to focus on strategy, people and execution. You’ve got to be a good strategist, to care and be attentive to people, and you’ve got to know enough about the business you’re in to be able to judge and get involved in the detailed execution. You cannot sit above that.”

The significance of the bigger picture should never be lost on a CEO. “The ability to see how the larger picture affects the smaller one - ie, what’s the global impact on my business – is important.  Another important point is attracting, motivating and retaining a top rate team. The most successful CEOs are usually, the ones who’ve got the best teams around them. If you want to stay a CEO, you’ve got to be really well attuned to the messages you’re getting from the chairman, board members and shareholders,” says Richard.

Once appointed CEO it can feel a little like drowning, the group of experienced CEOs offered their tips to aspiring CEOs and new CEOs:

Aspiring CEOs:
  • Do a fabulous job at whatever you’re doing now, because people don’t get to be CEOs by being mediocre in their careers. People get to be CEOs by being fabulous performers, being innovative and communicating their successes
  • Work on your communication skills. CEOs need to be great communicators
  • Have a breadth of knowledge and interests. Show a hunger and appetite for new knowledge, responsibilities and roles
  • Be patient and politically savvy
  • Do not shy away from opportunities when they are presented
  • Volunteer for general management roles. If you are in a particular discipline, volunteer for projects that take you out of your comfort zone into different areas
  • Learn, listen and network with CEOs. Talk to them about the challenges they face and the issues with which they deal
  • It won’t fall into your lap - you’re going to have to work at it
  • Visibility is critical. You have got to be on the radar of anyone in the organisation that matters
  • If you want to become a leader of an organisation, get into a business that is growing because you get opportunities
  • You’ve got to go into roles that build expertise and a track record. It is better to have experiences that demonstrate leadership, expertise and performance
New CEOs:
  • Have a clear vision of what you want to do
  • Focus on three things- strategy, people and execution
  • Make sure you get a good team around you -  you want some people that are willing to say you’ve got it wrong and there’s a better way of doing things, also get rid of the energy suckers
  • Trust your instincts – if you think something needs fixing or isn’t right push ahead
  • Have more patience
This is an excerpt from a Criticaleye Community Article – Mindset of the CEO. The full article will appear on the website and in the Review which you should be receiving shortly. The filmed interviews will be released on the Criticaleye TV pages over the coming months.

If you are interested in this week's topic please take a look at our Insights page on the website. Our Write-up on the December CEO Breakfast looks at what is currently on the minds of CEOs from SMEs and listed companies.

Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues in today's update.
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