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Lead Your Team Leadership

First-Time CEO? 6 Experiences to Prepare For

First-Time CEO? 6 Experiences to Prepare For
Credit: Boiko Y/Shutterstock

While first-time CEOs might initially think they're prepared to run a company, most quickly realize they weren't as ready as they thought, new research finds.

Six months after they started in the job, first-time company leaders said they felt much less prepared then they did on their first day, found a study from The River Group LLC, a global leadership advisory firm. Specifically, first-time CEOs gave themselves an average "preparedness rating" of 7.2 out of 10 on day one, but six months later, reduced their scores to an average of 3.5.

Despite that, most of the new CEOs surveyed said the job was quite enjoyable and fulfilling.

"Overall, the majority find it both fulfilling and rewarding — the best job of their lives," the study's authors wrote.

As part of the research, the study's authors uncovered six core "experiences" that first-time CEOS should be prepared to face:

Working with the board of directors: The unexpected demands and challenges of the board, collectively and individually, are a big surprise for first-time CEOs, the study found.

"They had to engage with the politics of the board collectively as well as with board members individually; this set much of the tone for how the board engaged with the CEO," the study's authors wrote. "This constant jockeying ate up much more time, energy and attention than our first-time CEOs ever expected."

The study's authors advised first-time CEOs to engage board members individually and collectively, set expectations early on and avoid ugly surprises. [See Related Story: New Manager Checklist: 5 Things You Need to Know]

Serving as master and apprentice: CEOs quickly realize that their role requires simultaneous learning and leading. While others may view them as the masters, their own reality is that of being apprentices.

"They are expected to have the answers — to be the 'master' the organization requires," the researchers wrote. "Yet, at the same time, they are serving their apprenticeship, not knowing what it is they don't know or need to know about the role itself."

To deal with that paradox, CEOs should recognize that although others may see a "complete" CEO, learning on the job will be the reality, the researchers wrote. In addition, they should work with other CEOs who have been through this before to help provide guidance, and should constantly seek feedback and act on it 

Realizing the weight of their decisions: The decisions CEOs make have a huge impact on the lives of their employees and their families. That weighs on them the most, the study found.

"It didn't matter whether the cause of this negative impact was within their control or not, their conscience felt it just the same," the study's authors wrote. "And the feeling was significant and enduring."

The researchers advised first-time CEOs to manage the stress that comes with making tough decisions and understand the need for maintaining emotional resilience and personal well-being. CEOs should also avoid trying to become detached, because connecting with employees at all levels of an organization is a crucial skill in being an effective CEO, the authors wrote.

Feeling alone: CEOs should understand that they are often isolated and at the center of attention at the same time.

"Our interviewees told us that [feeling isolated] is partly due to the fact that they can not be sure that the agenda of colleagues is pure and in the best interests of the organization," the researchers wrote. "Who can they trust with information?"

At the same time, these leaders are always forced to be "on."

"Their time is in high demand, everyone wants a piece of them and their time is not their own," the researchers wrote.

To combat these feelings, CEOs should expect relationships with colleagues to change, the researchers said. Additionally, CEOs need to recognize the impact of what they say and of every expression they make. While their new role will change the behavior of others, it is important that they themselves don't change, but instead stay true to who they are, the researchers said.

Expressing creative vision: Rather than the ability to wield power, CEOs say the best part of their job is the freedom to have a vision, set a course and see it through. 

"They love it because they are in control of the process of creating," the researchers wrote. "That ability to make something, to express an idea and see it all the way through is the single biggest pleasure of being the CEO."

To foster this freedom, CEOs should use the power of storytelling to build commitment to their vision, take time to engage others before taking action and understand that having a well-articulated, clear sense of purpose can be a great motivator, the researchers said.

Seeing through the myth of control: CEOs don't have the total control that many people believe these leaders have. Organizational politics limit the true amount of power a CEO actually has, the authors wrote.

"Listening to and engaging the collective leadership is vital, which is why politics is an inevitable, and arguably at times healthy, part of organizational dynamics — and why the CEO is at its political epicenter," the study's authors wrote. "Not recognizing and managing the impact of 'time vampires' has the potential to derail any CEO."

With this in mind, CEOs must be prepared to manage the realities of organizational politics through open engagement and healthy debate, and take control of their calendars by best managing those individuals who try to suck time away from important tasks.

"The first-time CEO faces more pressure and scrutiny from employees, shareholders, boards and customers than ever before," Sandy Lyons, CEO of The River Group, said in a statement. "Our study interestingly found that a first-time CEO feels more unprepared and isolated than ever before, while still feeling it is the best job of their lives."

The study was based on more than 70 in-depth conversations with CEOs representing a range of public and private companies from around the world

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.