How to Succeed as a CEO
Aspiring to become a CEO?
Thinking of going to Harvard Business School to get a degree? Perhaps Princeton. Sorry, put your thought aside. Neither Harvard or Princeton or any of the other Ivy League Schools offer CEO degrees. And forget Wharton, Stanford, MT, et al.
As Harvard Business Review points out, there is no shortage of schools for businesspeople of every specialty: accountants, engineers, financiers, technologists, information specialists, marketers, and, of course, general managers, who have their choice of hundreds, if not thousands, of M.B.A. programs. Every degree imaginable – but no CEO degree.
So where do you learn to be a CEO?
HBR puts it succinctly: There is no school for CEOs—except the school of experience.
It’s on-the-job training, while all eyes are on you. Shareholders. Board of directors. The press. Employees. Every decision, every action, every direction is under sharp scrutiny.
As President Truman said: “The buck stops here.”
Or, to put it more directly, there is no place to hide.
Experience, of course, is the best teacher. Second best is learning from the experience of others. CEOs who have been in the glare. CEOs who have climbed the ladder. CEOs who built companies.
In the Bitbean.com/CEOs-Speak, I have the good fortune of being able to interview hundreds of CEOs. CEOs who went through the hard knocks school of experience, had the on-the-job training, know the struggles and challenges, know the failures and successes, know what it truly means to lead a company through every imaginable circumstance a company will face.
I thought it worthwhile to share some of their experiences. Whether you are a CEO, aspiring to head a company, building a company, or just curious, they have much to say about leadership.
So here are excerpts from Bitbean’s CEOs Speak interviews and podcasts, Bitbean.com/ceos-speak:
“Another myth of being a CEO is that we have all the answers, and that is not always the case. As a true leader, a CEO needs to know when to ask for help, know that it is okay to admit that they are unsure of how to move forward, and, just as importantly, know what they are good at and what they are not good at. The latter is the biggest challenge I see amongst most executives.” – Tony Reda, CEO, Tectonic Metals
“CEOs also play an active role in defining and articulating their companies’ brand values or the attributes and principles a business believes in and stands for. Brand values are an asset that can pay dividends when managed well. And they do need to be managed well at a time when consumers, investors and job seekers want to align themselves with businesses that share their values.
“The biggest myth is the power that the CEO holds. As a CEO, you have no power unless you are able to onboard your team with a true sense of purpose of what your company aims to do. If your team does not align with the organization’s mission, vision and a true sense of what the company is contributing to, your power is just an illusion.” – Cedric Picaud, CEO, Cryopdp
“CEOs must be visionaries and risk takers. They must be willing to make sacrifices and deal with difficult issues on a regular basis and make tough decisions when nobody else will. Everyone has the opportunity to be a leader, but leadership at an executive level requires management, strategic thinking and responsibility. Not everyone is cut out for that role specifically, but leadership is most important for people to succeed.” – Jordan Geiger, CEO, Victor Technology
“Recruit and nurture a smart, hardworking, and confident team that is inherently curious, so that each teammate is always looking outside the company’s walls for both opportunity and threat. And empower the team to make quick, fact-based decisions. By doing so, you’re effectively building adaptation mechanisms into your organizational culture. And these mechanisms will support you when you encounter turbulent skies.” – Jason Randal, CEO, Questco
“Lead innovatively instead of leading innovation. Our cultural ideas of what a leader should be and do could use a refresh. We often think of a leader as someone who has the ideas and then assembles a team with the skills to execute on them, but, in my experience, the most innovative leaders are the ones who build a team that can collectively dream up exponentially better ideas than any one person could alone. Leaders must then strive to create an environment in which all these voices are heard equally, instead of the few that are loudest or belong to those with the most impressive titles. An organization thrives when its leaders are able to tap into diverse perspectives. This is common sense. People with different brands of intelligence and creativity will fill in each other’s blind spots, but this is not just my opinion — the research backs me up. Boston Consulting Group conducted a study showing that businesses with diverse management teams had an average of 19% higher revenues due to innovation, and other studies have directly correlated higher rates of immigration to improved regional economic outcomes.” – Jessica Nordlander, COO, Thought Exchange
“As a leader, I firmly believe you must make work a fun place, encourage big thinking, press teams to stretch their imaginations — all while taking care of your people. You must lead by example and not be afraid to get your hands dirty. It’s important for leaders to take on big challenges and show people how it can be done. For example, in the early days of setting up shared services for the pharma industry, it became clear we needed people who were certified in clinical data management. I did that certification myself, took the exams and showed up on the floor every day — and it mobilized our teams to do the same. Leading by example is key.” – Manish Sharma, Group Chief Executive, Accenture
“Executives must have a clear vision for the organization — they help set the tone for everyone on the team. Once that vision and tone are set, then it’s about identifying talent and grooming that talent so that everyone has a role in bringing the vision to life. An executive doesn’t micromanage — the executive relies on the expertise of the people with whom they’re working so that the organization can move forward. In my previous role, we always said, ‘Hire smarter than you.’ And I think that’s so true. You need to be able to rely on your team and trust them implicitly.” – Dr. Tina Marie Covington, COO, Anderson Center for Autism
“Focusing on supporting and adding value to your existing customers is always a smart move, since they not only provide economic support but are also the best sources of references and long-term business success. In turn, great results and happy customers build your employees’ belief in your product, which gives them the conviction and confidence to sell more. So much success depends on mental state. In difficult times, people — be they employees, customers, or prospects — are worried about making mistakes. Having confidence and self-belief offers them the precious commodity of certainty, and certainty sells! – “Richard Jeffery, CEO, Activeops
“Throughout my career, I’ve learned that early-stage companies thrive when they focus on specific segments. While Fuze does not fit into the early-stage category, I had a moment of clarity realizing that we could apply this model to refine our operations and dive deep into the vertical markets that major players like Zoom and Teams could not effectively support.” – Brian Day, CEO, Fuze
“Try new things and be okay with failure. However, fail fast and move on. We don’t want our teams to be afraid of trying new things, because these ideas ultimately bring about innovation and, in many cases, lead to new solutions. But sometimes they don’t — and being able to identify when it’s time to move on from something new is critical to ensure your company doesn’t get stuck in a nonfunctional situation.
“Create or expand your culture of innovation. At the end of the day, to stay relevant, you need to create a culture of innovation. Building this kind of culture doesn’t happen overnight, but with intentionality, it can reap large rewards. At Experian, we focus on building a culture of innovation in many ways, including things like Employee Resource Groups. These groups create an opportunity for networking across business units to happen organically, and we often see ideas sparked and innovation come out of these relationships as a result.” – John DeMarco, SVP, Experian
“Diversity is an incredibly important trait that someone brings to your company. Different life experiences, different viewpoints…it’s all an opportunity to learn, understand, and create better. I am proud of how diverse Proxima is across all levels of the company, and to be honest, it’s happened organically. Our junior staff continues to impress me, and we have promoted them as they grow. This strategy has worked for us, and in my opinion is a better solution than recognizing you have an issue with diversity and trying to solve the problem with a hire, particularly at a higher level.” – Kevin Coker, CEO, Proxima Clinical Research
These CEOs and the hundreds of others in CEOs Speak come from diverse backgrounds, diverse environments, diverse educations. Experience has taught them to be hard-eyed realists, yet at the same time, they relish the challenges. Is there a commonality that underscores their successes? The answer is yes. Unfortunate, space does not allow for in-depth exploration, so I will reserve this very critical topic for a future column.
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Chanina Katz has over two decades experience in major Madison Ave. ad agencies developing highly successful strategies and award-winning campaigns for such blue-chip clients as Colgate, RJ Reynolds, Hilton, Home Depot, General Mills, KFC and many others in a wide variety of package goods and services businesses. He provides marketing services for a range of businesses, from start-ups to major corporations. He lectures on marketing and creativity. He can be reached at Bullseyemarketing1@gmail.com.