How to be successful managing for the first time, as CEO

A 2 minute read

The situation

In some of my past articles I’ve talked about First-time Managers and First-time Manager Syndrome experienced by Senior people thrust into a leadership role for the first time - or a role Senior to their current role in a new organization. I am seeing first-time manager syndrome more often these days. In my work I’m seeing that the biggest transition is sometimes the most senior person’s transition into their role.

When the CEO or President is in transition the new organization will be too. Effectively, everything can and may change before the business stabilizes. While the challenges are not insurmountable the leader and organization require support to stabilize for the long run.

The start of the real transition

To get to stability requires commitment to a course of action and then the ability to see it through to a reasonable and hopefully successful conclusion. How does a leader in transition, new to that level of leadership, commit the company to a course of action by themselves?

Often in a new business, a startup, the early core team, from which the CEO emerges, have taken many roles, done what had to be done to get the business started. How do you transition a group like that into leaders of a single function department? How do you maintain the level of collaboration that existed earlier when people now have to focus.

The reasons this is difficult

As the organization grows and complexity increases, communication becomes more important and more difficult, the early core team have to transition with and to the organization in its new state. I’ve used the analogy (and I heard it from someone else) that it’s like changing an engine on a jet while it’s in flight!

Arguably the most important transition is that of the CEO or President. They have invested a ton of themselves, of others, and of people’s money - theirs and others. If they’re experiencing first-time manager syndrome, it's going to come with a bunch of negative events and some really trying circumstances!

The list of things that require their attention is long - their board, investors, the market if they’ve gone public, the early core team, the new hires, customers and clients, regulators, government, media, potential partners, vendors, the bank.

The implications of getting stuck or experiencing the syndrome for too long is failure of the business. For classic first-time managers it’s personal failure for 60% by the end of the second year. For Senior leaders experiencing first-time manager syndrome in a new venture, the impact is much larger than themselves.

Why write this today?

I had to check-in with my reasons for writing this article today. In wanting the best for all leaders trying to get a business built, I’m writing this to generate awareness for anyone who might be in this situation. If we were able to talk, I know that I would love your passion and want to see you succeed!

So, if I may be so bold as to offer advice (and if it resonates), ask for feedback on how you are really doing (any story you tell about yourself will likely be supportive or too harsh). Get some perspective from outside yourself. Be open to learning - you don’t know everything. Get some support. Reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t. Learn and transition from startup to stable business!

In the end…

In the end, the way you achieve success will be different than others in the same industry based on: what’s important to you; what purpose you want to fulfill; how you provide for your employees, customers, clients, partners etc.

From what I’ve seen and what I intuitively know, the one enduring, consistent factor for everyone in this situation, is how you work with, think about, and support the people around you - they will help you figure out how to change the engine mid-flight and make it successfully to your destination if you let them!

(see also First-time Managers in Startups)