Matt Paese talks about what it takes to be a first-time executive and some signs that maybe you’re just not cut out to be a CEO.


The View from the Top (of the Org Chart): Becoming a CEO

Wondering what it's like to be a CEO? Join Beth Almes & Matt Paese to see what it takes to be an exec, what shocks folks about climbing the org chart, & some signs that maybe it's not the job for you.

Publish Date: August 14, 2019

Episode Length: 30 minutes

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In this Episode

Wondering what it's like to be a CEO? Join Beth Almes & Matt Paese to see what it takes to be an exec, what shocks folks about climbing the org chart, & some signs that maybe it's not the job for you.


Curious about what goes on in the C-suite? Wondering if you’d look good in the corner office? In this episode, Beth Almes is joined by Matt Paese, who has worked with hundreds of new CEOs to become the best they can be in the position, to talk about what it’s really like to be a new CEO—and what it takes to get there.

Join the conversation on Twitter! Use #Leadership480 to answer what your most impactful moment as a leader has been and what you’ve learned from it.


[01:28] What does it take to become a CEO?

[05:37] What do CEOs struggle with?

[08:58] How are they not just exhausted all the time?!

[10:21] Managing the 360 scrutiny from social media and being on display all the time.

[13:01] Has Matt ever been surprised by a CEO? (For better or worse)

[17:26] Common habits that CEOs share.

[19:35] How do CEOs balance short-term and long-term visions?

[22:41] Advice for people who may not have the traditional career path but want to be a CEO?

Beth Almes: Hi. I'm Beth Almes, and I'm your host today for the Leadership 480 podcast, the podcast that's all about making the most of every moment of leadership.

Today we're talking about that 480-month career, the biggest moment you can possibly really have, and that's becoming the CEO. Most of us won't ever attain that level, and it's something that we might dream about or dread it, depending on who you are and what your aspirations are. But it's really curious to most of us. I have a really special guest here with me today, Matt Paese. Matt is not only an executive himself, but he has helped hundreds of executives and CEOs at well-known companies get through the transition to becoming a CEO. He has been their coach. He has been by their side. Matt, welcome to Leadership 480 Podcast.

Matt Paese: Hi, Beth. Thanks. It's great to be here.

Beth Almes: So, let's talk about the first question on everyone's mind. What does it take? If you're not the CEO, what does it take to get into the CEO's chair?

Matt Paese: That is the question that probably comes up maybe not in that form all the time, but the "What does it take?" question is the one that we get asked and we're working with our clients to answer a lot. People ask the question, "Can she be CEO? Can he be CEO?" The answer is usually yes. But the question is, "What kind of CEO might she be?" or "What will happen when he becomes CEO?" 

I think one of my clients put it best recently. This is a CEO of large organization and he said, "If you're gonna do this job, you better know why you're doing it."

And what he meant by that was there are so many forces that are going to disrupt your intent, that are going to disrupt your plans, that are gonna disrupt your vision. And he felt very strongly that the "why" is the thing that's most important. And for him (and not just him) -- Most CEOs are strengthened by a sense of purpose. "Why am I here? What is it that we are intending to do?" Because without it, I think you can get knocked off your track fairly easily or be deterred from something that might otherwise be a good intention.

Beth Almes: Yeah, that's really interesting. I guess I hadn't really thought necessarily about that strong sense of purpose at the top. I don't know that we always see that in CEOs depicted in the media. But you see that pretty commonly across CEOs?

Matt Paese: Purpose doesn't need to be some sort of virtuous human purpose, like world hunger or disease. Purpose can simply be, "I'm gonna turn around the profit problem in this company," or, "We're gonna restore a performance culture in this organization." That can be purpose. And I think as a CEO takes that role on, he and, not often enough, she, have to think about, "What is my intent?" And it's not all about her or him, but because you occupy this singular role that we call "CEO" and we put it in a singular place at the top of organizations, it means that it does have to be somewhat about you and your intent because you occupy the seat. You're where the buck stops.

Beth Almes: You mentioned a little bit about it being about what kind of CEO someone is. Are there different types? Is it not just, you know, there's an executive at the top and you're the one making all the decisions? Are there really different types of CEOs?

Matt Paese: I think I speak for all my colleagues when I say that for every CEO we've met, there's a different type of CEO. What I mean to say by that is that it's the job that is most created by the nature of the person that gets in it. I think at every lower level job, starting from first-level leader on up through CEO, the further down in the organization you get, the more the job forces you into a way of having to do things or a set of rules and guidelines and structures around what it is you're supposed to do. When you get to the CEO role, there's just a lot more freedom and responsibility all at the same time. That means that whoever the person is, whatever their nature is, it kind of just comes out and we see it and it happens.

The question, "What does it take to be a CEO?" is a complicated one because it's an interaction between the person and the business context, the organizational context.

Beth Almes: Tell me a little bit about behind the scenes. What do CEOs struggle with? Sometimes what we see as employees are everybody's criticizing the CEO. What's on their minds?

Matt Paese: There's some interesting research about what former CEOs look back and wish they would have done differently. And there's one thing that more often than anything they report wishing they would have done, and it's having stabilized their teams more quickly. And what I mean to say by that is CEOs struggle with getting the right team of executives in place that can lead the organization, and they report that they wish they would have done it sooner. These are some of the biggest challenges because if you think about a CEO, the people who are reporting to you are probably really talented and more talented than you are in the area that they lead, or they're more knowledgeable, they're more expert. You have these really accomplished, really brilliant people who are reporting into you, looking for guidance, and how do you lead those people? How do you determine if those people are doing a good job or not? 

There's often not a good playbook for CEOs when they get into their role, and sorting that out is the most common thing that CEOs struggle with and the thing that they wish they would have done more quickly when they got into their role.

Beth Almes: Why are they struggling with that so much? What makes it so hard to put their team together?

Matt Paese: It's putting the team together as well as assessing the effectiveness of the team. If you think about the speed of change in what's happening, if I take the role of CEO, my job within a month or two after I get into it starts to be different than the previous CEO. And then another month or two later, it's even more different. So, this rolling change and evolving priorities and the business context changes, so that means everybody's role is shifting and assignments are shifting. As a CEO, you have to determine, for example, what does "empowerment" mean? Better yet, what does "accountability" mean? How do I hold people accountable and what's the way I do that? 

So, we sit down--you and I, if you're the CEO and I report to you--and you say, "Matt, here's what I expect of you in the next annual cycle." And maybe I'm the Chief Marketing Officer, and you don't know as much about marketing as I do. I'm a marketing guy. So, you might be saying to me, "Matt, what kind of goals do you want to set?" And then together you and I have to arrive at what we think the right level of expectation is? What are the accountabilities that we have? 

That's complicated space. There's no one saying, "Here's how you do it. Here's what winning means," other than the standard lag measures that we're all very familiar with.

So, setting some of those really big measures like, "We're gonna get more leads in our business," or, "We're gonna get more traffic to our website." Those are easier to determine than things like, "Am I managing this person on a day-to-day basis in the right way?"

Beth Almes: One of the things that I have always wondered about--Honestly, the CEO role just looks exhausting to me. How they are not just tired every day. They seem to find some kind of energy. Do you see that with CEOs, or do they just have more energy than the rest of us?

Matt Paese: I would say both are true. We do see fatigue with CEOs. Only in private moments. You don't see it publicly. CEOs are well known as people who tend to have a natural amount of energy, because it is 24/7. There's no turning the job off. You don't go and just disconnect for two weeks if you're a CEO. I suppose there are some who can manage to do that, but for most CEOs, the business never stops, and the challenges never stop and the need for your attention and your quick reaction never stops.

I think most people tend to come into it and it does tend to draw a person who is energized by the frequency of it, but I think we'd be naive to think that it doesn't exhaust people periodically. Especially when performance is suffering. If things are going well, I think most CEOs would tell you how fun it is. It's when things aren't going well, and they continue to not go well, and the challenges continue to mount that CEOs can find it exhausting.

Beth Almes: I'm interested about what you said about what they show publicly versus what privately, as well. A good part of my own career has been in public relations, and one of the things that I have noticed and has caught my eye in the recent years is this growing trend of what they call "activist CEOs," where they really have this huge publicly facing role. The old rules used to be that you just stay out of everything. Stay out of any kind of scandal. Stay out of any kind of discussion about politics or really anything. And that's no longer true today. It's kind of more this 360 scrutiny, both from the media, as well as from social media. You're on display all the time. Can you tell me a little bit about how CEOs are handling that or how that's changed their experience?

Matt Paese: It's such an important topic for CEOs, and I think it's one that causes a lot of CEOs to lose sleep, because things like social media are so daunting. How do I become a social media expert, and what if I'm not one? Does that expose me even worse than if I try to be one and I'm not a good one? These are tricky subjects. And talk about there being no playbook! I mean, for goodness' sake. How do you teach a CEO how to be a good social presence? I think the first thing a good CEO acknowledges is probably that you're always on. There is no private moment anymore. There is no moment when you can stop being a responsible face to the public. Private conversations have gotten so many people into trouble. Maybe there is no such thing as a private conversation anymore.

But I think the other thing is--I don't think you have to be an activist CEO. I know some CEOs are in business sectors where that's probably more challenging than others. But I think the CEOs who tend to be the most effective are the ones who are showing everyone that they're listening and they're open. And that doesn't mean they have to agree with everyone or pacify everyone's point of view. They have to have a point of view that makes sense, that has a true north, and that represents the values of an organization and where the employee population is wanting to go and is consistent with their mission as a business.

If you are prepared to be transparent in that sense, you probably can find a way to navigate all this stuff without having to be an expert or without having to feel as though you're constantly under scrutiny.

Beth Almes: So, let me ask you a little bit about CEOs who have surprised you. Maybe what they seemed like publicly or what your first impression, then when you had a coaching session with them, they reacted differently than you thought--maybe for better or for worse. Have CEOs surprised you?

Matt Paese: They have, and they do a lot, Beth. It's so interesting because if there's one thing I think I've learned over the years it's not to think I know all that much about what the answer is for a CEO. Yeah, we've seen a lot of CEOs be successful and we've seen a lot of them fail. I think it's really dangerous to think you have an answer to how to be successful. Maybe an example that would kind of bring it to life: There was a healthcare CEO that I worked with, and he was leading the organization through a very difficult period financially, culturally. A lot of organizational upheavals. And in the midst of that, they, as a senior management team, decided to get some feedback. There was just enough cultural upheaval that they felt like it was necessary to do some 360 feedback, so they did. This CEO went and got feedback from all of his colleagues and then a bunch of his direct reports. Probably 25 or 30 people who weighed in and gave him feedback. And, boy, did they give him feedback. So, on the day that he and I sat down to go through his report, he had not reviewed it when we sat down to do his feedback session. He hadn't even opened it up. And I asked him if he had, and he was very honest. He said, "No, I haven't had a chance." We started to read through it together, and some of the comments in there were pretty tough for him to read because there were words like "tyrant" came up, and words like "aggressive," and "embarrasses people in public," and, "I'm sorry I have to work for him," and, "This organization is starting to embarrass me." These were things that started to really get to him. You can imagine his reaction as he's paging through this. 

Flash forward a little while into the conversation. He said something that really stuck with me, and I think this is one of those moments that really did surprise me, because he said, "You know, Matt, when I think back to when I started my first executive job, I remember what it was like to feel like I had a lot of responsibility. And to be leading people in a way that was really important to me." And he said, "When I think of the person I was then and the person that's being described in this 360, I don't know what happened." 

And he was, frankly, stunned by his own slow morphing of his behavior and his approaches, and the more we talked about it, the more he started to share that over time, the tensions, the pressures, the things that he felt like were his responsibility began to get to him, and his optimism started to erode. His sense of possibility started to erode. And that caused him to believe in people less than he used to. So, he had been this guy earlier in his career, the guy that everybody loved to work with. Everyone wanted to work for this guy. Flash forward a decade and a few tough experiences and a few lumps and suddenly he's not that guy anymore.

Beth Almes: That's such a powerful story. I don't know that we think about the fact that the CEO used to be somebody working alongside everyone else and really different and maybe well liked, and the pressures the job just start to get to you.

It kind of brings up a thought, too. I see so many articles, things designed for aspiring leaders, for maybe even the entrepreneurial types who, looking at--"Here's how you get to be CEO." They're sort of cheesy. "This is the one habit you need to be just like Elon Musk." "If you eat this for breakfast, you're gonna end up running GM," or something like that. It's those kinds of things.

Obviously, that's not gonna work for everybody, but are there some common habits that CEOs share, or things to think about if you do aspire to lead a company?

Matt Paese: I do think there are. I don't know if I can pick them off a shelf and say, "It's this habit or another habit," because if you go back to what you and I were saying just a little while ago about how the CEO job is the one where the person makes the job more so than the job makes the person, right? So, if the person makes the job, I think each CEO has to find, "What's my habit? What's the thing that I can do consistently that I need to do consistently and that I need to display for our culture, for our business? What am I trying to change? What am I trying to lead?" And I think the "sprint to the finish" oriented mind set or something that's more of a burst of energy is less likely to accomplish results than something that's more consistent and steady and incremental and devoted to a cause in ways that can enable some patience as well as some steady movement forward.

I don't know if I'm saying that very well, but I think the CEOs that we see that are the most respected, the ones that hold their jobs the longest, the ones that deliver the most results while they're in their roles, or have the most impact in the tenure that they serve are the ones that commit to courses of action and stick to them, but don't require them to be these big, giant accomplishments in short periods of time.

That's a big ask, because some CEOs face desperate situations where they don't have time and they have to try to produce a big action in a short period of time. That's just a challenge that's hard to prescribe exactly what to do for someone in those situations. At least, a prescription that's a generic one wouldn't be useful. But if you think about habits, as you said, there's a habit or a small set of them for each person that's unique, and when you find the right ones that a person can stick to and be consistent about, it's those consistent micro-patterns that tend to be the ones that, over time, have the most impact.

Beth Almes: So, you brought up something that I think is interesting. Performing a short period of time. I think the last number I saw was that CEO tenure is down to like 5 years on average. I've been seeing a lot of news recently, too, about shareholders getting very impatient with CEOs. If they're not delivering the quarterly results, and they're not giving them a lot of time. I think it was GE--Their last CEO only had 14 months on the job. 

The challenge here is combining that short-term vision and the long-term vision. How do you see CEOs managing that?

Matt Paese: I think you put your finger on it. That's the tough one. It's balancing short versus long term demands and figuring out how to prioritize and determining where to put my energy. I'll say it again--A lot of times the job of CEO is such a--it has this spotlight on it and we imagine it as this exalted position on top of an organization. Some of them are celebrities and they get talked about a lot and we profile them in all these ways, as though there's this magic aura or they're somehow a different species of human being that shows up in the CEO job. But these people are just as human as the rest of us. They're just not able to show as much humanity because we're watching them so closely and scrutinizing them so much.

I don't want to act like we're feeling sorry for CEOs all of a sudden, but if there's one thing that does constrain their behavior, it's all of us watching all the time. If you have a board of directors watching and a bunch of shareholders watching and your employees watching and your customers watching, they don't always share the same set of interests. So, somehow you have to find a way to either thread the needle to at some level appeal to all those groups, or what I think is more often the case--This is going back to right at the beginning--You have to be clear about why you're there. "What is it I'm trying to do?" so that you and your senior management team as CEO can make some tough decisions and say, "You know what? This one is probably not gonna be as good for this constituency, but it's gonna be better for this constituency and we can tell a story, a narrative about how, over time, it's gonna be good for everyone. But right now, we'll probably have to make this decision." 

I don't know if I answered the question very well, but I think there's a connection between, "Why am I here as CEO?" "What are we trying to do as a business?" and, "What are the needs of our stakeholders?" And somewhere in that mix is a need to commit to a course of action that sometimes you just got to--If you're the CEO, that's the reason you're there, is to make that final decision when it's tough for others to do it or when it's unpopular or when you can see that someone has to make it, even if it is that unpopular.

Beth Almes: I'm gonna wrap up with one final question about the craziest path you've ever seen someone take to the CEO's job. So, for some of us, it's easy to see how you get up to the CEO how you're promoted, you're promoted, you're promoted, you're promoted. It seems like a lot of times nowadays that's not always the case anymore. That it's not just straight on up the ladder. A lot of times it's a little bit more varied. 

So, if we have some listeners who are thinking, "How would I ever get myself in line for the CEO's job?" can you just tell us a story about someone who had a really interesting background who came to the CEO job?

Matt Paese: That's interesting. I would start by saying--I'm gonna answer your question in a second, but an initial thing that you made me think of when you asked the question is that one thing we do know is that the route to senior leadership--not only CEO but also senior executive roles--speaking of zig zagging around. For women and people of color and people of more unique backgrounds, there is more of a zig-zaggy path to the top. We see people having to take more assignments, get more experience, if you're a woman, if you're a person of color. I think that's a message for all of us. Not just people who are Chief Diversity Officers or inclusion executives or leaders in this space. I think for all of us, we have to not just think once or twice, but deeply about why that is, what are we doing in our organizations to enable pathways that cause us to notice talent or notice capability sooner? And, particularly, in ways that are not in the traditional ways. 

I think maybe I'm meandering my way to an answer to your question because we even have some data at DDI that shows that people who rise to the top of their organizations tend to come from some functions a lot more than others. They tend to come from finance. They tend to come from operations. They tend to come from sales. They tend not to come from human resources. They tend not to come from some of the more non-traditional pathways. 

Beth Almes: I know. I already heard they don't come from marketing and PR. I've already heard the bad news.

Matt Paese: That's right. They don't. But if you look at Mary Barra from General Motors, Mary has a background that is not the traditional background in the engineering and design type of background. I think by all accounts Mary Barra has done a terrific job at General Motors. Hasn't been perfect. They've had a very challenging set of conditions that they faced during her tenure, and I think that's not likely to change. It's not gonna get easy for General Motors. But she's a player who comes from a more varied background, from some of the non-traditional space. And in a place like General Motors, where the old term used to be, "We're looking for a car guy." That's literally a term where, if I go back a couple of decades, we were asked to help (not General Motors, another automotive company) to find "car guys." Just the term itself denotes the fact that we have an opportunity to be thinking and looking for capability in spaces where it's not necessarily expected.

Another point, Beth, is that if you look at data. We simulate the job of CEO for our clients, and we have our client candidates for CEO go through a day and a half or full day simulation of a CEO role, followed by a series of interviews, and we talk to their colleagues, and we find out what their managers have seen from them in the past, and we put a profile together. And what we don't find is differences by functions, for example. What we don't find is differences by gender. What we don't find is differences by ethnic background. People are capable to do the CEO function in equal measure across all these different groups. I think our tendency to choose CEOs from traditional functions and background comes from the risk that boards of directors and shareholders don't want to face. They want some sort of known quality or known quantity I guess I mean. Experience is the one you hear all the time. "We want someone with experience." Except we just know that experience is not as good a predictor as skill and as the right disposition. These things are better predictors of who's gonna succeed in those roles.

Beth Almes: So, if I were an aspiring CEO, what would be the skill or the thing best to do that sort of puts you in that position for getting the CEO job some day?

 That's interesting, because I'd be naive if I said you didn't have to get noticed. Because you do have to find yourself into roles where people can notice you. And that's another thing that we, as HR professionals, can help people get noticed. We can help work with our senior managers and our CEOs and our senior executives to say, "What are the programs and processes we can put in place that cause us to notice people that might not otherwise be noticed?"

So, back to what to advise someone. Raise your hand. Volunteer. By your curiosity and your questions and your desire to be involved. Put pressure on your professional players, your HR players and others who can help you find ways to get involved, to get seen, to get noticed. A healthy organization finds ways to see performance, to see people do things that are outside their comfort zone. If there's an asset that I think every organization would be well served to go look for right now, it's curiosity and people who are eager to find their way into challenges that they've never experienced before. If you can find that and harvest it, you've a good chance to build talent, and that's what everyone's having trouble doing right now.

Beth Almes: Thank you so much, Matt. So, I'll sum it up by saying, if you want to be CEO, leverage your curiosity, get yourself into finance, I guess is the quickest way--or operations will work, as well. And get comfortable with disruption and discomfort, because it sounds like it changes all the time.

Matt Paese: It's a pretty good summary. We'd like it to be broader than that. We want more pathways than that. It's one of the things we're all working at trying to do. 

Beth Almes: All right. Thanks a lot, Matt. Thank you, all, for spending some of your time joining us today for the Leadership 480 Podcast. This is Beth Almes reminding you to make every moment of leadership count.

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