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CEO Matters , Cirata .

CEO Matters – 5 Tips for the first-time CEO

Stephen Kelly, CEO, Cirata

I have been lucky to lead four global tech companies as CEO from both the USA and UK. Thinking back to my first CEO gig, I can now recognize mistakes I made early on, and things I would have done to avoid pitfalls and accelerate success. What would I now tell my younger self when I first took the CEO reins? Here are my top 5 tips for the first-time CEO:

1. Be decisive, always

Decisiveness is one of the key qualities of successful CEOs. It’s so easy to ‘freeze’ or seek endless different opinions that leads to paralysis. There is little value in admiring the problem. A huge factor in delivering success when you first become CEO is to back your judgement and to be decisive. It is often more successful to make a decision, execute against that decision and gain valuable data quickly on the success or otherwise of the decision - you can always course correct.

There is a balance between engaging with all stakeholders – especially customers, colleagues, partners, management team – and then determining the best course of action. Believe in yourself to trust your instincts to deliver your compelling vision for changing the world of your customers. Stay true to the vision, to yourself, and never waver.

2. Prioritize your time and energy

It’s important to select the most critical and urgent issues for top priority and park or even ignore some of the noise that will inevitably encircle you. If you can keep focused on the top 2-3 priorities, then there is greater momentum having all the ‘wood behind the arrow’. As a first-time CEO, it is almost better to get ‘good enough’ sufficient data (think about the old maxim of 80/20) and then prioritize the most important and urgent programs. Once you make a decision, the forward progress begins. You can then assess the effectiveness of the decision and be adept to course correct on your priorities, as you seek to improve relentlessly. With prioritization comes increasingly flawless execution that allows you to expand the priorities over time.

3. Ruthlessly hunt for talent

Business is a team game and the team loves to win. So, a disproportionate investment of time should be invested in hiring the best team – individually strong, with great attitude and of course, team players.

There is science to great recruitment, but as it comes closer to hiring someone new on your sales team, it is also worth using old-fashioned ways to verify that your recruits are top performers. Obvious things to do:

  • Use your network, check in, and ask customers who they respect or fellow executives.
  • If you are hiring a head of sales, in the final interview round, ask the candidate to provide a handful of references of recent customers with their cell phone numbers. Sometimes, the candidate cannot produce the customer cell phone numbers there and then – a big red flag.
  • Always speak to customer references and ask open questions – one of the best is “What would concern you about buying from this individual again?”

On the people side, I would argue that there is close to 100% correlation between outstanding people and processes to commercial success. Winning comes from being very thoughtful in building your top team and incentivising them for the short- and long-term to make sure they are committed throughout the journey. Strong alignment with customers, colleagues and shareholders is vital.

4. Be a positive energy force

Hiring rockstars and becoming a talent magnet is so critical for success. As you grow the company and build the team, it is vital to bring the team with you on the journey and make sure that the team is 100% on the bus. The CEO sprinkles magic dust with a compelling vision but also with the sheer energy that you bring to the task at hand. If you combine this, and role model great values where your colleagues LOVE coming to work for you, then you are half-way to being the talent magnet for growth.

As I often talk about, the CEO must have the energy to lead the process of building a culture where everyone can be confident to be themselves at work and be at their very best. It is so important to set everyone up for success and bring the team with you.

5. Execute, flawlessly

Your team needs to have goals that the Leadership Teams understand, support, and devise how they make the vision come true with strategies and tactics. The plan needs to suit the team’s capabilities. Using the sporting analogy, the hard lesson comes when the capabilities and tactics need to change from one match to another and even sometimes within the game where adaptability is key. Winning consistently is all about the team and consistency of execution – creating the playbooks to drive the execution ever better.

It is worth getting your team to drive all their functions as hard as you drive sales and prioritize marketing, sales, product management, and engineering with the focus on the customer needs. Everyone else in Finance, HR, facilities, legal supports the colleagues at the sharp end for the whole team success. It is arguably more important to get the right people on the bus, than be precise on the end destination. The vision will be clear and the destination and velocity will evolve with customer and market reality.

Remember: ‘A’ class strategy with ‘B’ class execution is always inferior to ‘B’ class strategy and ‘A’ class execution.

Based on my years of experience, these are five tips that I believe will help any first-time CEO succeed. I would also advocate that any new CEO considers getting a good mentor and personal coach; someone who only has your best interests at heart. I know I would have benefitted from such a figure when I first took on responsibility of CEO, if only to help me make the right decisions, quickly. We all make mistakes and learn more from what did not go well. Being a new CEO is a hugely challenging experience but it’s also massively gratifying and, dare I say it, great fun building something special. Good luck with your adventures!

Onwards and Upwards, Stephen

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