Seven Tips for Becoming a Great CEO

Posted by Robert Norton on

It takes a decade to become a great CEO and several years just to be a good one. There are "born leaders" with natural talent in leadership and the confidence required.  But there are no born "Experienced CEOs" that takes lots of effort.  Like any other art.  Being a CEO is the most complex job in the world.  Far more complex and controls than the cockpit of a B2 bomber.  The difference being that some of those controls are people, and you can never be sure what they will do.  Or even if they will be there.  Imagine landing a B2 in bad weather when you were not sure what each control would do. Yep, that is what running a company with even a dozen people is about.  

It is important to spend time "sharpening the saw".  This should be a multifaceted approach and include several regular self-improvement efforts put in your schedule:

1. Focus on doing what you are best at and delegate other things.  We never do a good job on things we do not enjoy, and often avoid the required work there.  Use an Administrative Assistant, intern and other staff to do those things that you do not like.  Make them "learning opportunities" for those people too, not busy work.  Everyone needs some challenge and growth, or at least everyone you want to hire.  This is more important to top people than money, as is some appreciation expressed for their work.  

2. Use a Mentor or Coach that has done what you wish to accomplish before.  Ideally, 10+ years' experience as a CEO.  In the old days, a 5-year apprenticeship was used for any complex skill or art.  Leadership, management and lots of industry experience will require this amount of time doing a complex job like CEO too. Most "Business Coaches" have never built a significant business.  Coach “certifications” are almost useless.  Real-world experience in management, sales, marketing, operations, finance, leadership and other disciplines is crucial.

3. Reading - Learn from the masters and gurus. I read 4-6 books per month for about 20 years.  Eventually I hit over one thousand books, though many were never finished as they were bad or redundant with others.  This included summaries and books on tape.  So, 30 to 60 minutes for some.  Listening on my commute every day to and from work and even at home.  That kind of commitment adds up and will eventually make you deeply knowledgeable. I believe being committed to being a life-long learner is essential to be a good CEO.   Once you become a CEO there are few people you can learn from at your own company, so you need to commit to a continuous learning program.  Reading is just one tool there.  There is no replacement for this.  This is time to explore what you do not know and constantly improve.   Being a CEO is far more “Art” than skill.  It must be learned from experience and applying principles.

4. Be flexible, not set in your ways. Constantly evolve and learn. Many people get locked into a way of working that was successful in the past but it not the right way for today as a larger, growing company with different structure or other changing circumstances. You must avoid "reflex decisions" and think through the variables involved. This kills many companies. Formerly great companies like DEC, Wang and many others died because they could not accept the new realities of the marketplace and change their habits, strategy and focus.  And I always see owners that are neuroplastized into one way of doing things when the world is changing around them.  As a result, they go sideways or even eventually see their companies die.  CEOs must evolve along the spectrum of dictatorial management style (usually needed in a small startup with a few people) to Collaborative management that trusts and leverages a more experienced management team. You will never break $5M without this growth. 

5. Network with other CEOs and go to industry events to have direct contact with both customers and competitors. CEOs sometimes get isolated and the information they get is filtered, not raw. This can cause bad decisions. You must make a strong effort to be sure people are willing to “speak the truth to power”. Reward this behavior visibly so you do not get surrounded by sycophants and brown noses

6. Build a team of smart and experienced people around you.  That you can trust and will listen to, not just talk at.  Do not just hire low level, cheaper people, especially in the biggest areas of risk.  All companies need strong marketing and innovation more than anything, but excellence is execution operation) is sometimes also the key skill to grow.  There should be one strong and experienced manager for every 7-10 people in the company. Entrepreneurs that try to do it all get stuck micromanaging and do not grow themselves, or even let their people develop. Great companies require a team, not a superman/woman.

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7. Learn “Best Practices” and benchmark all processes and departments with metrics.  “You cannot improve what you do not measure” - Peter Drucker.  Literally.  Force a process mentality on the company for constant improvement (Kaizen), documentation and to enable training new people. Six Sigma is a good framework for the mentality, though overkill for small companies.  No company will scale smoothly without a corporate dashboard and department dashboards that frame what success is, focus is and how people are measured and rewarded. 

 Bonus Tip - Be sure to attend The CEO & Entrepreneur Boot Camp  It will give you a foundation to build on in all key areas and a roadmap for most things in starting a new business. Forty courses every CEO needs to take, or they will learn the hard way over decades of mistakes. Better than getting an MBA and can be done in weeks, not years.  

Allow five years to become a good CEO and ten years to become a great one.  Like any other true art, it requires lots of experience, not just education. 
No one ever started out painting the Mona Lisa.

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Bob Norton is a long-time Serial Entrepreneur and CEO with four exits that returned over $1 billion to investors. He has trained, coached and advised over 1,000 CEOs since 2002. And is Founder of The CEO Boot Camp™ and Entrepreneurship University™. Mr. Norton works with companies to triple their chances of success in launching new companies and products. And helps established companies scale faster using the six AirTight Management™ systems. And helps companies successfully raise capital.

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