We all have dreams (or even nightmares) about work from time to time. From messing up a big presentation to coming to work naked, these dreams are born out of common anxieties about our 480 minutes at work. The problem tends to worsen at higher levels, especially when it comes to new CEO success.
As an executive coach, I spend much of my time coaching executives who are transitioning into the CEO role. One of my most memorable coaching sessions revolved around the work dream one CEO successor shared with me.
I had been working with this woman for about a year to support her transition to CEO. Shortly after her promotion, she told me about a dream that captured the fears, challenges, and stressors she was experiencing.
In her dream, everyone in her open office workplace was talking about the beautiful day outside. They decided they were going to go outside for the rest of the day and have a party.
Her initial thought was, “Yeah! This sounds like a great idea since it’s such a beautiful day!”
But her prudence took over. She suggested they get their work done first, since it was barely 1 p.m.
She felt conflicted by her thoughts around this situation. In the past, she had led others by simply telling them what to do. But in the past few years, she’d worked hard to change her leadership style, focusing on influence and trust.
As the dream went on, everyone started to go outside to party. But a few people chose to continue to work. She grew angry that there were several people inside trying to work while the others were outside distracting them. Finally, she lost it. She yelled at everyone to come inside and finish their work.
Her trusted colleagues in the dream were deeply disappointed in her. They couldn’t believe she lost her temper like that. Visibly upset, she told me the dream encapsulated her worst fears about herself as a leader. Her worst fear was she could blow up like this in reality, causing her to lose all credibility, trust, and the follower base she had built.
While this was all just a work nightmare, it led to a great breakthrough moment about new executive success. As the new CEO said, “This nightmare was a huge watershed moment. I realized I really had become a different type of leader. But in my subconscious, my past is always going to lurk a little.”
For me, this story represents more than just a powerful and impactful coaching session. Rather, it showcases a CEO successor who truly transformed through transition. Instead of continuing to rely on what made her successful in the past, she challenged herself to grow.
Here are five reasons this CEO, and others like her, successfully make the leap.
1. They maintain an open-minded disposition before, during, and after the transition.
The CEO who told me about her dream was open-minded throughout her transition. She was very receptive to difficult feedback that wasn’t always easy to hear.
While people at her company admired her intellect and knowledge, they didn’t always like her leadership style.
Like many leaders, she adopted her directive style in her early days of leadership to get things done. But as she climbed the ladder, she realized she needed to change her approach.
To help her understand her strengths and development areas, her company employed 360 feedback surveys. Key stakeholders gave her critical feedback about how they observed her handling challenges. They reflected on her strengths, and how she could be more effective. The future CEO took the feedback seriously, and immediately began work to change her style.
When she was a year out from becoming CEO, she went through a “day-in-the-life” assessment center. The experience was a life-changing preview of what it would take to be successful as a CEO. She left with a rich store of objective data about herself that she could return to frequently as she geared up for the CEO role.
While the data helped her maximize her effectiveness, her openness to change contributed the most to her new CEO success. Her open mind enabled her to act on the feedback, rather than falling back into her old ways.
2. They actively listen.
One of the most fundamental executive roles is satisfying the needs of different stakeholder groups. That’s why active listening is crucial to new CEO success. For each stakeholder, executives need to know what their needs are, their challenges, and their perceptions.
Active listening is a building block for creating an environment of psychological safety. Within this environment, people can be open, honest, and transparent, and feel they will not be shunned for their ideas or their thoughts.
By listening, executives are also including people in the leadership of an organization. They’re helping others feel valued, which builds trust. In my story of the CEO successor, active listening was a key skill she built early in our coaching engagement. Later, it played a primary role in her ability to rebuild trust within her team so quickly.
When a leader practices active and authentic listening, they’re also practicing empathy. Empathy gets a lot of airtime as being critical for lower levels of leadership, but it’s also important at the C-level. Empathetic leaders ask questions to better understand their team members' and colleagues' feelings, concerns, and frustrations. This approach is critical for CEOs who need to satisfy high-needs stakeholders. A recent study even shows that most CEOs now see a direct link between empathy and an organizations’ financial performance.
3. They are experts in both interpersonal and intrapersonal interactions
At DDI, we consider emotional intelligence (EQ) an anchor skill, an important factor in leadership success. EQ is made up of two components—interpersonal intelligence and intrapersonal intelligence. Successful new executives need to become experts in both.
The idea of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence was coined by Dr. Howard Gardner in his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner says there are eight intelligences that humans possess, and two of them are interpersonal skills and intrapersonal skills.
Interpersonal intelligence is how you respond to other people's emotions, which includes using empathy to show you understand them. For many CEOs, their rise to the top is largely because of their interpersonal intelligence.
Intrapersonal intelligence is your knowledge of yourself and how you manage your emotions and reactions to events. It’s not just about knowing how to read people but knowing how to read yourself. And that’s where CEOs tend to struggle.
Most people don’t realize how stepping into the CEO role puts a spotlight on their personal habits, tendencies, and viewpoints. While these things simply made them a unique individual at lower levels, they can have an unintentionally powerful effect at the CEO level.
A negative reaction to an idea can ripple through the organization, stifling innovation at lower levels. Or overenthusiasm can lead people to focus too much on only one portion of the business. In the worst cases, a lack of personal awareness can cause executives to overestimate their abilities, leading to risky decisions.
On the flip side, CEOs who master both interpersonal and intrapersonal interactions have the best chance of developing strong executive teams. Furthermore, the culture at the top tends to cascade down the organization, influencing how leaders at every level interact. New-CEO success has a lot to do with effective interpersonal and intrapersonal interactions.
4. They excel at networking internally and externally.
One of the biggest risks of being a CEO is being isolated in an echo chamber. It’s easy for CEOs to become insulated by people who reflect their own views and beliefs.
As an executive coach, I’ve often seen that CEOs who settle on one group of advisors tend to stagnate. But while it’s a critical step for new CEO success, it’s also a danger for CEOs who have been in their roles a long time. For example, back in 2000, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings went to Blockbuster to pitch them to buy the company for just $50 million. Blockbuster’s executive team, including CEO John Antioco, famously laughed him out of the room.
While a number of factors were at play, one of the key issues was that the Blockbuster team was focused internally. They didn’t have the right pulse on the market. While Antioco later saw his error and tried to steer his stakeholders toward the Netflix model, it was too late.
A CEO needs to know the truth about what’s happening both within the organization and outside. That’s why developing a network of trusted internal and external advisors is so important.
5. They have a strong vision for the future.
The most successful new CEOs are able to synthesize all of the information flying at them (competitive data, changing markets, new technologies, etc.) into one strong vision.
They can paint a picture of the organization’s strategy that is not only high level, but also makes it real for people on the front lines. When vision is done well, every leader in the company can quickly answer, “What’s the company strategy?” without skipping a beat.
Robert Kriegel writes about what visionary businesses have that puts them ahead of the game in his book If it Ain’t Broke…Break It! He says that leading businesses operate like good surfers. They start paddling way before the wave breaks. If you wait for the wave to get you before you start paddling, the wave will pass you by. Businesses that operate like great surfers are those that have the vision of what the market could be. Meanwhile, those that wait for the wave to reach its peak will likely be wiped out.
This is a metaphor for what good executives do. They have a strong point of view and vision for the future that enables them to make confident decisions. To keep their vision strong, they’re constantly paddling, fishing for information that’s keeping them ahead of the market. By the time the wave hits them, they’re already up on the board, mastering the wave.
Preparation paves the way for success
In closing, it’s important to acknowledge that new CEO success is in part due to the preparation they’ve put in prior to their transition.
The CEO I mentioned in the introduction of this post is a great example. She demonstrated a shift in her leadership style well before she became CEO. This shift was the result of being open and listening to the feedback from her colleagues, as well as the feedback I gave her during our coaching session. She successfully built her network and continues to use it to keep her point of view strong. Within only four months of becoming CEO, she made substantial changes that strengthened the company significantly.
A combination of executive assessments early on to understand their strengths and challenges, coaching to support them in finding success, and a laser focus on building critical skills in the years leading up to the transition, puts new CEOs in position to flourish and tackle the challenging road ahead.
Learn how DDI’s Executive Coaching can sharpen senior leader performance.
Richmond Fourmy, Psy.D., is an executive consultant with DDI, focusing on CEO succession and leader development for national and global companies. Richmond is a clinical psychologist who started out in the psychotherapy world, before moving to the corporate sector 27 years ago. He has consulted to and coached senior leaders across multiple industries, and he considers himself fortunate that his clients have asked him to travel to five continents and countless countries. When he’s not pursuing his passion for live music, Richmond can often be found standing in a river fly-fishing or wandering the Blue Ridge Mountains searching for the perfect view.