Executive Education

4 Things You Need to Learn About Leadership Before Stepping Into the CEO Role

Business Team Meeting

If you want to become a Michelin-starred pastry chef, you do not start with the pièce-de-résistance exploding chocolate globe with a revolving honeycomb center. You learn the basics first and then diversify your experience at other restaurants or explore different cuisines in your spare time. You learn from other chefs before gathering all you have learned and taking it into your own culinary venture.

When you have your sights set on being CEO, you cannot step straight into the role from nothing. You need to have other leadership experiences — learn about your skills, your style, and your areas for improvement. To get to know what kind of personalities you work with best, practice interacting with others.

Simply dedicating time to sitting in boardrooms and watching other leaders will help you develop the instincts you need to become a better CEO.

What I Learned From Dell About Being a CEO

At Dell, I observed leadership as it happened. I worked with dozens of executives during my time there. I learned how important organizational structure is for developing internal culture.

Dell’s open-door structure meant that I had regular one-on-one meetings, not just with my boss and team members, but also with my manager’s managers. I could sit down with anybody from the organization and learn from them.

This experience taught me that if leaders can arrange their organizations in ways that foster healthy, structured communication between employees and leaders, they will enable learning in a whole new way.

I also learned the power of positive accountability. The atmosphere at a big, innovation-driven company like Dell is always going to be competitive. Without a good process for accountability, that atmosphere will turn behaviors toward blame. Leaders need to set up connected accountability, in which rewards are built around key performance indicators and teammates are incentivized to look out for one another’s interests.

4 Things You Need to Learn Before Stepping Into Your CEO Shoes

Learn these lessons before you embark on your next leadership challenge, and you will go into the role with greater perspective and understanding:

  1. Positivity goes a long way.
    Being a CEO means you are always selling your idea — whether through a pitch, in a hiring meeting, or to a shareholder. You need to understand each department’s mission and who the best people are to lead it. You are selling your team’s results, but you are also selling yourself and showcasing what your team is doing.When Katrina Lake first set up her company, Stitch Fix, her idea to own every piece of inventory on the site was met with criticism from many directions. But she knew she needed that proprietary data in order to deliver the satisfying, personal service at the heart of her brand. Her positivity meant that she was able to stick to her guns and eventually convince others.
  2. Do not play the blame game.
    Business will have ups and downs. Bad news cannot be avoided — in fact, in order to get the best out of your team, you need to share bad news in a way that brings everyone together.
    Great CEOs use challenges to get better. At Dell, we would use missed targets as opportunities to improve processes, designs, and strategies. At JPMorgan Chase, CEO Jamie Dimon avoids worrying about the fluctuations of stock price to focus on the long term. “We manage our business knowing there will be good times and bad times,” he says.
  3. Have a true open-door policy.
    Foster an environment that is transparent and rewards open communication to create a culture where collaboration and growth can happen without fear.
    Mathilde Collin, CEO of collaboration software startup Front, achieved this by making her work calendar public. Everyone in the organization can see what she is doing, and everyone is welcomed into her office at particular times for open office hours. People feel safe sharing with her because she shares openly with them.
  4. Embrace healthy dissent.
    One of the top qualities a CEO needs is to bring out multiple viewpoints in order to make the best decisions possible. Debate and analysis are crucial to getting to the right outcome, but once you make a decision, the team moves from debate straight into execution.
    The CEO of Invoca, Gregg Johnson, believes that a CEO should be a mediator. “Help people identify where they’re getting stuck and whether the data they’re missing is actually critical to forming a hypothesis,” he wrote for Quartz at Work. Then, you can guide conversations toward a common understanding.

Head chefs stepping into their own kitchens for the first time are always going to sweat. Their hearts will race; their hands will shake. Your first day as CEO will be a step into the unknown to a certain extent, but if you have done the work practicing leadership, trying things out, and experimenting with communication styles in a safe space, you will empower yourself to be the best CEO you can be.

Written by Christine Alemany.

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Christine Alemany
Christine Alemany is the CEO at TBGA. Christine has more than 20 years of experience reinvigorating brands, building demand generation programs, and launching products for startups and Fortune 500 companies. She has an MBA from Columbia Business School and an MS in Civil Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. Christine Alemany is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on LinkedIn.