There are a few key pieces of advice I give to new CEOs in the early days. 

In this blog post, I am focusing on the first piece of advice, understanding the business. I urge those who are new to the role to seek to understand before attempting to act.

The desire to “do” and “act fast” can be hard to resist, yet few CEOs (unless perhaps an internal successor) have enough insight to know whether their assumptions about what to act on, are accurate enough to pursue. Listening as often as possible and taking the time to understand what is being said is key to long term success. When I say that a leader needs to listen and understand, I do mean this very literally.

I would like to see more CEOs taking the time to speak to people both within and outside of the organisation. In my experience, the best way to learn about the business you are taking on is to make certain that you really understand it from the perspective of those doing the work day-to-day. This means not limiting understanding to just what they are doing, but also what and how they are thinking about, as well as what they believe could be done in the future. It’s also important to gather insights from external stakeholders; from customers to suppliers to prospective partners, gaining the opinions of people who are key to the success of the business, and who can provide important insights about the company’s reputation and perception as seen from their vantage point.  

There are of course, numerous ways in which CEOs can gather these insights. From organisational insight diagnostics, which we have utilised with numerous companies, to following-up by holding CEO listening sessions, typically in the form of focus groups with various people across the organisation. The objective here is for a new CEO to get a 360 view of the company. The idea is to use both diagnostics and smaller focus group sessions to discuss a wide range of topics; from how to engage with stakeholders, through to gauging opinions on what people feel can be improved on. Harnessing these opinions can prove to be the right way of asking how the company can capitalise on what are the drivers for success, and is a powerful way to build an understanding of the business. 

Beyond engaging in discussions, I have often advised CEOs to spend time “doing the job”. i.e. answering call centre queries, shadowing engineers, meeting with customers, visiting partners - remember, the point is to understand first, so when you act, you are acting on the right things.