Moving up to the C-suite is markedly different to moving in – Australian CEOs reflect on their journey.

Ask a CEO to reflect on an unexpected challenge they faced in their first CEO role and you may be surprised to hear that it was the fact that everyone was watching them. CEOs who spoke to Korn Ferry recently noted that internally people saw them differently to how they had before their appointment and that, said one CEO, “Every interaction matters.”

It is true that a CEO’s words and actions are amplified. The position adds a weighting to what is said and done, and their performance in the top role is observed more closely than others in the C-suite. CEOs’ decisions, their style and their tenure is considered, critiqued and speculated about by external stakeholder such as investors, suppliers and the media as well governance bodies. They are also closely watched inside their organisations as they set the behavioural tone for the environment.

Korn Ferry’s recent report, ‘The C suite – Moving up and Moving in’, presents a series of in-depth interviews with 11 business leaders who have held CEO and other C-suite roles in some of the most respected organisations in Australia and New Zealand. They were asked to share the milestone moments that informed their careers and to reflect on the challenges they faced and changes they made as they ascended the career ladder.

The business leaders acknowledged that moving up to the C-suite is markedly different to moving in, and that their first CEO role brought unexpected challenges they had not prepared for in their previous roles. Many spoke of the increased scrutiny – inside and outside the organisation and they accepted as CEO they set the behavioural tone for their workplaces.

The scrutiny CEOs work under is shared, to a lesser extent, by their fellow C-suite executives – leaders who may be in training for the top job, or whose roles have a major impact on the organisation’s performance. The rise of social and online media – and the thirst for content to populate multiple information platforms – has brought an increased level of transparency and immediacy of information about the decisions and events that impact the business ecosystem and, in particular, its management.

The C-suite-moving up and moving in provides insight into the early experiences that set a pathway to business success, along with the career decisions and risks that have taken people to the top of their organisations. There were common experiences and themes revealed by the business leaders. Here are the 10 mentioned by most:

Top 10 things that change when you become CEO

  1. Everyone is watching you and they view you differently than before.
  2. What you say is amplified. Good communication is fundamental.
  3. People management is much more time-consuming than you expect it to be.
  4. It is essential to look for diversity of ideas and experiences when building your team.
  5. Listening for the first few weeks is the most valuable way to start the role.
  6. Technical skills are a small part of leadership – emotional intelligence (EQ) is as important as IQ.
  7. The pathway to the top is smoothed by luck.
  8. You don’t know everything nor are you expected to – seek advice.
  9. Learn how to work constructively with the board. The relationship is different to that of the executive team.
  10. Make a difference in broader society. You have the resources to support a wider community – use them.

First-time CEOs will, in the early days of their tenure, be focused on working with the board, getting across the numbers, understanding the strengths and weaknesses in their team, and most will also spend a lot of time with external stakeholders. The breadth and complexity of the role is challenging enough, without the added pressure of every move being watched.

However, most CEOs recognise that this is part of the job and they work on their communication skills, often seeking the advice of mentors to help them with the transition. This unexpected challenge can, when properly understood and embraced, help CEOs set a positive and motivating tone for their team, and throughout the organisation.

This article first appeared in the CEO Magazine.

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About Contributor

Tim Nelson is the MD of Korn Ferry Hay Group in Australasia. He has more than 25 years’ experience executing global executive search and talent management solutions across the Asia Pacific region.

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