What it Feels Like to be a CEO

The only constant in the world is change. Attributed to Heraclitus (500 BCE), technology has increased the rate of change we deal with on a near daily basis. In the executive ranks, the ability to navigate change is felt most acutely by the CEO. A recent article by Egon Zehnder explores what it feels like to be a CEO.

As we’ve discussed before, soft skills are the top indicator of executive hiring success. The article explores just that, the human side of being a CEO. It goes beyond business strategy and management practices to explore the impact on the person in the corner office.

It should come as no surprise that CEOs are confident in their abilities and skills. After all, if they didn’t have confidence in those areas, they wouldn’t rise through the executive ranks. However, they found the ‘dual journey’ aspect of the role presented challenges they couldn’t prepare for, but rather had to experience to grow.

The ‘dual journey’ refers to (a) being the CEO and (b) doing the job of a CEO. The former is about leadership, while the latter is about the operational requirements of the position. Both are critical to success but they require different mindsets, approaches, and skills. As the report notes, CEOs felt they needed to transform their abilities concurrently with the business.

The report’s findings are presented in three themes. The study included more than 400 CEOs, 61% of which were first time CEOs, and just under half were promoted internally to the role.

Mindset for Success

Self improvement and continual growth were mentioned by 79% of the CEOs as an important aspect of the role. “[It’s about] stepping back and reflecting,” said one CEO, “acknowledging that I do not have all the answers and do not need to have them.”

As the leader of the organization, the CEOs role can be isolating at times. When asked about feedback, just over half speak with their senior leadership team, and nearly a quarter rely on their own judgement. Those numbers highlight a lack of communication between the CEO and their direct reports.

Preparation for Succession

With 80% of CEOs believing they were ready for the job, of those who felt fully prepared, the difference between CEOs who were promoted internally versus those from the outside was 10 percentage points. The lower levels of preparedness for internal promotions could be related to the fact that they are first time CEOs or that they felt pressure moving into a position of leadership over people they had been working alongside.

Succession planning continues to be addressed in theory, but not in practice. “44% of the CEOs surveyed said that their appointment was not part of a planned and formal succession process. Of the 56% who did go through succession planning, almost one-fifth (19%) of them rated their process as poor—suggesting that there is much work to be done in this area.”

Expectations versus Reality

Many aspects of the job were considered harder than anticipated, especially in the soft skills areas. The number one area that was harder than they expected, mentioned by half of the respondents, was leading culture change. The ability to find time for themselves was mentioned second most at 48%, and developing a strong leadership team was the third most mentioned area at 47%.  

For inspiration, more than half of CEOs look outside the organization. However this did not mean they looked at other organizations to see how they manage their business as the number of CEOs that mentioned it was just over one-third.

The report wrapped up with five key points:

  • CEOs are purpose-driven, confident—and also vulnerable and humble
  • Being appointed CEO is only the beginning
  • It’s more about “being” than “doing”
  • Boards must support the CEO through the leader’s entire tenure
  • Internally selected candidates need more support

For our thoughts and Egon Zehnder’s excellent report, please send us note. Our executive recruiter’s experience with CEOs across industries combined with our focus on culture increases your ability to find the best candidate for your specific needs.