I met with Jack for the first time today. Jack is a first year CEO of an international nonprofit who's been in position for six months. After a few minutes of catching up, I asked the first question to begin of our time, “What's keeping you from fully being engaged in your leadership?" We launched into a conversation about the issues he was facing as a 1st year CEO and discussed his priorities, uncovering his benchmarks for the next 36 months. We included the financial measurements as well as the potential staff growth of his team. We identified the critical areas that, if addressed, would significantly impact organization's growth.
Our conversation included identification of the top 3 issues that he should be prioritize in leading the organization. Then we began discussing the areas that are consuming 60-70% of his time and attention. You can probably guess that the two lists were not an exact match. In fact, they didn't match at all. As Jack's coach, I knew that was the first focus of closing that leadership gap.
Succession planning was also put on the table, and we began to think through the possibilities of hiring and training his replacement long before it's due. This caused our attention to focus on developing a bench and what that might look like in representing and leading the organization. At or near the forefront of every CEO's mind is the Board, its structure and governance, and who he would be bringing on in the next 6 months to a year. How new board members will be sourced and vetted are key factors. Finally, we talked about his predecessors, their style of leadership and the legacies they left behind. We covered a lot of ground with a one-hour discussion.
After laying the framework of all that Jack was managing, we narrowed our focus. We laid out three questions to identify areas that needed further clarity.
- Where does Jack need greater confidence? His answer was confidence in himself and his abilities. He is beginning to feel the effects of leading. He understood there was coming a time when the honeymoon would be over, and he would have to make decisions and tough calls that could ultimately alienate or isolate him. The new leadership luster will wear off which may affect his approachability as well as his ability to engage his team in open dialog, once it's viewed that some of the discussions may have consequences. How will he respond? What does he need to do to stay steady and strong? What support does he need around him so that he doesn't waver when it gets tough? How will he ensure that his eyes and ears are open to truth in sorting through tough decisions?
- Where will the organization go under Jack’s leadership? What will the team need from their leader? What are his strengths, and what are the areas that will stretch him, the areas where he will need to rely on the expertise of other staff or that he will need to personally develop in order to become the leader the organization needs. He shared that he has a tendency to fall into analysis paralysis thus turning his greatest strength of critical thinking into potentially a significant weakness. He instinctively knew that some of the key team members in the areas of business development and technology if the organization was going to grow. It is vitally important to know the key team ingredients for fostering growth. He also recognized that in order for him to be successful in his new role as the leader of this organization he needs to get out of the office and interact with staff members and key partners around the world.
- Who's your customer? As the discussion progressed, I learned that this was not the model of his predecessor. Past leadership focused more on fiscal responsibility, which was certainly essential, and less focus was placed on connecting with global team members. This part of the conversation led me to ask if he knew who the customer is? After a long pause, it was evident there was some question in his own mind. But the answer soon came that it's the associates who are in the field. I then asked him if his staff and board would agree with that answer? There was even a longer pause. The answer has significant implications. Understanding who your customer is and who you are trying to reach will help you identify where your priorities and your focus needs to be and how to best utilize your energies and resources.
Fiscal responsibility and organizational efficiencies are foundational to the job of leadership and necessary for a healthy organization to run well. Without them many organizations have ceased to exist. Yet if the organization is to see the kind of significant growth Jack envisioned over the next 36 months, some of the leadership models were going to have to change. This could very well be disruptive to the expectations and culture of the organization that he was now appointed to lead. Jack does not need to face these changes alone.
His pathway to successfully navigate these changes will require him to lean into his closest mentors and proteges. Given all of the opportunities, challenges, and issues that he is facing as a leader, he knows that the key to success is having people speak into his life and his leadership so that he will be able to lead effectively and, in some cases, he will need to speak into his team, customers, and key partners in the same way.
All new organizational leaders find that the pursuit of clarity is hard work. Given the many complexities organizational leaders face, how do you find clarity in your priorities, your planning, and the overall purpose of your organization? How do you develop the team so that you are all working toward obtaining a vision, accomplishing a mission, and seeing the goals attained?
Find a Way to Navigate the Changes and Challenges You’re Facing Today
Like Jack, you need experienced mentors and other peers to speak into your life. This is a critical factor to the success of a new leader, especially when you have to start making decisions that can make the journey feel very lonely. In the end, everyone celebrates success. But the road getting there may require changes that are often difficult in the moment. How do you stay steady in the midst of such difficulty in such a way you don't lose confidence in yourself and your team members?. Will you move further into isolation, or will you identify your blind spots and insecurities and courageously face the hard choices that will help you grow as a leader. The first step is determining who is going to help you along the way.
If you’re a first year CEO facing new challenges that are stretching you beyond your capacity to lead, hope and help is only one conversation away.