It’s Hard, This CEO Thing

CEO? Managing Director? Business Leader? Start-Up?

If you answered to the affirmative, firstly congratulations. Congratulations on stepping up. Congratulations for taking your tiger by the tail. Don’t worry. Its tough. But you would not have it any other way.

When explaining why the role of a CEO is one of the most challenging endeavors around, I often compare the CEO position to that of the American football quarterback.

Football experts hold a view that of the 84 quarterbacks playing professionally in the NFL, only seven possess the full skill set required to play the position at full competence.

Why? Because it’s that hard.

The speed of the game, the on-the-fly adjustments that need to be made, the multiple play permutations to memorize, and the tiny windows of opportunity available to make a play, all add up to a level of complexity that is beyond most human beings. Frankly, it seems to be beyond the vast majority of professional quarterbacks!

The consequence is that there is a revolving door for failed quarterbacks that move from team to team, leaving behind them a losing record and another futile search for one of the elusive seven. Conversely, the good ones spend a career with one team and achieve consistent success over time.

So, why is being CEO similarly difficult?

There’s not one single reason. Rather, there are a number of factors, each of which have their complexities.

The first, and most important factor, is that everything is the CEO’s responsibility. Everything. Not directly, but implicitly, the CEO is responsible for the actions and choices of an entire organization.

Secondly, a CEO is required to be better, or at least as good, as everyone within the business. Not in terms of doing the actual work, but the CEO’s insights into any matter and the guidance required around it are required to be leading-edge at all times.

Thirdly, there’s only one CEO and that makes for a lonely existence. There’s no-one with whom to compare notes, there’s no-one to be vulnerable around, and there’s likely to be no-one who’s walked a similar path before.

So, if this is resonating with you as a CEO or MD, here are some tips on what you can do about it:

– Get a confidant: Find a coach, a mentor, a thinking partner, a peer or a forum to talk to, as there is no way you don’t have blind spots and, by definition, blind spots can only be spotted by someone other than yourself. The talking part is key here – self-reflection is important and valuable, but it also perpetuates the solitude. Talking about something out loud has a way of unearthing realities that you didn’t know were there at all.

– Stay humble and keep learning: Whatever way of doing things you think you’ve perfected will need updating and revising – constantly.

– Watch the pressure: Go beyond the cliché and actually do something to mitigate the stress you’re under. Get a skilled senior management team that does most of the hard work and leaves to you to be strategic at least 50% of your time. Keep meetings to half an hour and be selfish with your time.

– Move on when it’s time: You are fortunate to have reached the top tier and your skills are required in many places, so don’t be shy to call time, take a break and look for something that works for you better on most, if not all levels. If you remain committed to the cause, why not reap your rewards through a sale, or step aside and let someone else run the show in your new capacity as Chairman.

Business is tough. Running it is a challenge. Not for the fainthearted. Yet none of us would have it any other way.