• Olli Junnila

It's not easy being the New CEO

Photo via Shutterstock

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to talk to five new CEO’s from widely known corporations and openly talked about their challenges and possible areas of serious failure. A straight quote from one of them was:

We have brilliant staff, our sales & marketing teams are doing a fantastic job, we are delivering as promised and we are profitable, so how do I implement changes without destroying any of the above?

That is a really good question. There’s really two schools on this; don’t fix what ain’t broken and innovate or die! The CEO in question, let's call him Peter, believes in innovation, but is hesitating to act on it. Peter has been assigned to take the corporation through a significant transformation program. The owners and board of directors have a vision and Peter is there to guide the company through the change, without causing unnecessary turmoil.

My only chance of succeeding in this transformation is to get everyone in the organisation behind the change, make them realise the necessity of the change without forcing it from top-down. But how do I do it? They don’t know me, I don’t really know them. They have their own coffee breaks and chats, and when I step into the room the atmosphere changes and conversation stops. I encourage people to be open and unafraid to express their thoughts, but there’s still something that makes them shut down.

Basically a new CEO can fail only in a few ways:

  1. Financially - a decline or inability to regain profit and growth.

  2. Sales & customers - loosing deals and customers or inability to attract new ones.

  3. Delivery - inability to deliver as expected.

  4. Internally - Not finding their place in the organisation and not having the respect of their peers or the Board of Directors.

Four out of these five new CEO’s stated that getting to know the organisation, being a member of the team and earning the respect from their employees is the most likely reason for them to get fired. Only one of them said inability to deliver as expected is the most likely reason, but then again, she is the one running a company which changed their CEO because of serious problems in this area.

So if internal communications is the thing keeping these CEO’s awake during the night, what can they do? How do I convey the complex message from the board or the strategy workshop to the colleagues in the factory or electricians on the construction site?

  1. Spend time - having a town hall meeting once a month with 10 minutes of Q/A at the end is not good enough. Sending a newsletter is not good enough. Get to know your employees. Figure out if they have some sports they do together every Friday morning, take a day to work with the crew in your warehouse. Take a ride with one of your truck drivers delivering your goods to the customer. Work with your pears without pushing your views and authority on them, just listen and do the work.

  2. Break the unseen communication barriers of the organisation. Sure, some of the middle managers will hate you for this, but think of the reasons. Are you really breaking something working that they’ve built or have you just exposed an uncertain/narcissistic manager leading with unhealthy authority?

  3. Have your internal communications flowing both directions. You will never succeed through top-down communications. Find an environment where people feel free to discuss and react on discussions. Keep it open and encouraging.

  4. Start building your company culture from the building blocks your employees have cast. Encourage and engage into conversations that are heading towards the big picture, and do not discourage the ones leading to a different direction. People are smart, they will see what is getting the attention from senior management and what’s not.

  5. Find your change agents, but don’t over empower them. They might be eager to drive a change, but if they become too friendly with the CEO, they might loose respect from the rest of the crew - and that’s actually something you want to build even stronger.

It’s not easy being the new CEO. It’s a lonely position and it’s the classic case of bowing into one direction and showing your derrière to the other, but think of it this way; If you as a CEO have your change agents and trusted individuals in the organisation, what is the chance that the board doesn’t have similar connections in that very same organisation? Slim to none, I would say. So treat your employees with respect and they will respect you.

The best chance of surviving as a CEO today is to have a heathy relationship with your staff and customers, break down internal communication obstacles and make your team feel proud to work for the company with you being in charge. If you think it’s hard, it’s only getting harder. By 2020 over 50% of the workforce will be millennials, who have a completely new mindset and attitude towards work. It’s about freedom, having an impact and being heard - how do you intend to keep them motivated and feeling like they are working for a company they can be proud of?

One of the biggest mistakes CEO’s do, is fill up their calendars, especially recurring calendar events are a poison to be extra critical about. Two hours a week for 5 people amount to around 500 hours a year! And that’s 500 hours away from something else. A good rule is to have 30% of your calendar free for next week. This gives to you the freedom to react on urgent issues and in the best case provides the opportunity to hitch a ride with that truck driver.


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