7 experts tips for an incoming CEO

Executive leadership team having a work meeting

Over the last five years, our Executive Search division has placed CEOs in subsidiaries of multinationals as well as private equity-backed, ASX, family office and Australian private companies. We’ve advised boards working through executive transitions and hiring new CEOs.

Given the wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, we’ve collated the key insights from discussions with our CEO community over the years to provide advice for an incoming CEO. Here is what they found most important.

1. Define your style

Back in the day, leaders most commonly used a command-and-control style, but service and empathy are now seen as the touchstones of great leadership. As an incoming CEO, it’s important to reflect on where your style fits within this spectrum, and to consider objectively which aspects of your style might need work. This can be challenging, but involving a mentor or respected peer can help you see things more clearly. From there, you should be able to identify some approaches or rituals that you can practice in order to build the leadership style you want to develop in your new role.

2. Find your focus

As a business leader, it’s crucial to strike the right balance between exercising your commercial acumen, and concentrating on communication and relationship-building. Obviously, success as a CEO depends on performance. But of course, performance relies on how you select and support your staff to achieve business goals. Your focus is likely to involve both commercial and people skills, combined uniquely to suit the organisation, its objectives, and its staff. Consciously considering this at the outset can help you set a solid foundation for your new role.

John Florey, CEO of The Food Revolution Group, talked to us in a previous article about success, learning from your mistakes and the importance of upskilling. To learn more, read "What I wish I knew: A CEO's strategy for success". 

3. Build your "A" team

They say “it can be lonely at the top,” and with good reason, especially for a new CEO. It’s critical that you establish a strong, supportive network of people around you who can coach, act as sounding boards, and give you objective advice. This is very important, especially in the early days. Take Jim Collins's advice: get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off it), and in the right roles, from the start. As the saying goes..

"Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”

4. Plan for transition

Obviously, a change of CEO has an enormous impact on an organisation, and that impact begins long before you start the job. So, plan for that transition. Consider everything from first-day, internal communications, to key meetings, executive coaching, and broader business-wide goal-setting. Along the way, plan opportunities for gaining honest feedback about how the transition feels for the business — and how you’re going — so you can respond quickly, making relevant changes that support your progress as the weeks pass.

5. Prepare to transform

While of course it’s vital that you understand the history of the business and its evolution, avoid thinking that you can’t break any traditions, or try new things. On the contrary, in the rapidly changing environments that we all now navigate, success will depend on your ability to drive organisational transformation, particularly out of a post-Covid world. So, make it your business to embrace the evolutions in production, distribution, digital and consumer behaviour as you set strategy to deliver on goals.

6. Know your Board

Get to know each person on the Board, or in your organisation’s ownership team. Understand where each individual is coming from, and how their past experience now influences their priorities and views. As with building a great team, the strong relationships you develop with each Board member will prove invaluable as you work with them to achieve objectives. Those relationships won’t just help you throughout your tenure as CEO; they often leave a lasting mark that can help you grow your career in other organisations down the track.

7. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

Once you have a plan for where you want to take the business, strategize around how you’ll communicate that — to the Board, your executive team, the wider employee body, shareholders, and other stakeholders in your organisation’s success. Being clear about your objectives from the outset will help everyone get on board early. Great communication is key, though, so having a strong communications capability in your team, and considering communications throughout your planning, will prove invaluable.

We want to thank our CEO community for sharing these insights. Let their expertise guide you as a new CEO, and use these as starting points for the next chapter in your leadership journey. And of course, if you have questions about hiring your next CEO or interim or permanent executive leaders into your organisation, we’re happy to chat.

Feel free to get in touch for a confidential discussion.