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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

What CEOs Wish They Had Known

One of the business world’s most respected CEOs is shining a light on what it takes to be successful in the top job.
What CEOs Wish They Had Known

William R. Johnson, chairman, president & CEO of H.J. Heinz Company, has held his organization’s top position for nearly 15 years—a long tenure of success leading one of the world’s most iconic global food companies. That’s not to say, however, that Johnson didn’t have a lot to learn once in the job. In fact, becoming a chief executive was more challenging than he expected.

“When I was named CEO of Heinz, there was just so much I didn’t anticipate, in terms of the impact on both my professional life and my personal life,” says Johnson. “Looking back, there are a number of things I wish I had known.”

A few years ago, as Johnson reflected on his transition, he began to wonder if his experience was unique. Johnson was certain his peers at other global public companies must have encountered surprises of their own as they settled into the unfamiliar territory of the CEO role, but information on the subject of CEO management transitions seemed to be scant or fragmented.

William R. Johnson, President and CEO of H.J. Heinz Company
William R. Johnson,
President and CEO of
H.J. Heinz Company.

That realization led him to commission a study in which sitting CEOs would be interviewed and their insights and experiences documented. The research was initially intended to enhance management transition planning at Heinz and prepare its future leaders, but the results were so candid, enlightening, and instructive that Johnson decided to green light a book project.

The result is Preparing CEOs for Success: “What I Wish I Knew,” a book based on the study commissioned by Johnson and written by the lead researchers, Leslie W. Braksick and James S. Hillgren of The Continuous Learning Group, Inc.

For the study, Braksick and Hillgren interviewed 27 current and former CEOs of some of the world’s largest and most successful companies, mining their experiences and insights about the challenges they faced—many of which were unexpected—and what they had learned about themselves in the process. The global companies represented by this group of leaders included AT&T, Bank of America, Caterpillar, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, McKesson, and PepsiCo, to name a few.

Eight common themes emerged from the interviews, representing what the CEOs said they were not prepared for, and the things they wish they’d known before they moved into the role: 1) tenacity, patience, and judgment required for decision-making, 2) unique challenges posed by the leadership team you inherit, 3) prioritization takes on a whole new meaning, 4) developing a trusting relationship with your board is essential, 5) transitioning well matters, 6) unending governance challenges, 7) public scrutiny: no private life, and 8) isolation of the job.

These themes are illuminated by many insightful quotes from the CEOs, who articulated the stresses, difficulties, pleasant surprises, and valuable lessons learned.

Consider some of the quotes from CEOs interviewed about prioritization:

“I was surprised by the time management and prioritization challenges—both on internal and external things. I had to learn to say ‘no’ and to manage my time better.”

“I had no idea how physically demanding the job would be. For this job, I need to be energetic, focused, and disciplined all of the time.”

“I knew that the job of CEO would be demanding, but I was surprised at how much it truly infringes on my personal life. This is truly a 24/7 job.”

“My biggest surprise is that being CEO is as fun as it is.”

As its title implies, Preparing CEOs for Success is more than a book of reflection. It also includes information on the personal qualities, career experiences, and managerial practices to which the CEOs attributed their success. As the authors point out, this information is meant to benefit those accountable for developing future CEOs, including board members, succession committees, sitting CEOs, and HR leaders.

“I believe preparing CEOs is one of corporate America’s most important obligations,” Johnson said in September when delivering a keynote speech on the study findings to a group of HR executives. “It’s a particularly important challenge for HR people today, because it’s critical that they are preparing leaders for the next generation.”

In addition, the book features a “CEO Handbook” containing advice from the 27 CEOs for their successors and for others who aspire to become CEOs of global, multibillion-dollar companies. This advice covers areas such as handling the handoff from the previous chair- man/CEO, working with a board of directors, combating the isolation of the job, and dos and don’ts for succession.

As Johnson points out, advice such as this is especially valuable given the high bar set for CEOs today.

“In this rapidly changing and challenging environment, we need well-prepared, dynamic leaders that possess character, drive, experience, integrity, courage, talent, and vision, so that they can deliver exceptional performance in any situation.”


  • Preparing CEOs for Success is available through major online booksellers, in both paperback and e-book editions. The net proceeds from the book are being donated to Ronald McDonald House Charities, which creates, finds, and supports programs that directly improve the health and well-being of children.

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