Advice to a New CEO (or to Any Leader)

If you follow my blog, you know that yesterday the board of Thomas Nelson promoted Mark Schoenwald to the the position of President and Chief Executive Officer. Though I will remain as the company’s Chairman, I have stepped away from active management after six years at the helm. I want to pursue my writing, speaking, and other business interests.

One Rock Climber Helping Another - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #9571360

Photo courtesy of ©

Almost immediately after this announcement, several of my readers asked, “Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to a new CEO?” This is a great question, and I would offer seven truths:

  1. Your position is a role not your identity. I know a CEO who retired several years ago. On the day after he stepped down, he innocently asked a friend, “If I am not the CEO, then who am I?” Let me tell you, you better have this figured out long before your exit. Your title represents one aspect of your life, not the whole of it.
  2. Your position is temporary not permanent. According to numerous studies, the average tenure of a CEO is 5–6 years. Anything beyond that is a bonus. You may think you will last forever. You won’t. There will come a time when you step away or step down. Embrace that fact and plan for it. It will create the sense of urgency and focus you need to succeed.
  3. Your position is a privilege not a right. You have likely arrived at this spot through a combination of talent, hard work, and timing. This doesn’t entitle you to anything. Being a CEO is an e enormous privilege—a gift—that few people will ever know. Never take it for granted. Hold it with an open hand.
  4. Your position is about faithfulness not achievement. I came into my role with specific plans about what I wanted to achieve. I had enormous dreams—grandiose in retrospect. Then the Great Recession hit. The story took a completely different turn. The mission changed. Suddenly, it became clear to me that being faithful in the midst of adversity was the most important thing I could do.
  5. Your position is about them not you. The world has more than enough narcissistic leaders. It doesn’t need one more. Being a CEO is not about you. It is about them—the people you have been called to serve. This includes your employees, your customers, and your investors. And, yes, I put them in that specific order. Happy employees make for happy customers. Happy customers make for happy investors. And happy investors make for happy CEOs.
  6. Your position is about stewardship not ownership. Being a steward is different than being an owner. As a Christian, I believe that God owns it all. I am merely a steward. Based on that belief, CEOs—even if they don’t believe in God—have an ultimate accountability to Him. In other words, they hold what they have on behalf of someone else. If not God, then the board. If not the board, then their children. If not their children, then posterity. Someone is counting on you to come through for them.
  7. Your position will require more than you can provide on your own. I have felt inadequate with every new promotion I’ve ever received. But none more than when I became the CEO of Thomas Nelson. Other CEOs that I know have expressed the same sentiment. The realization that you are responsible for the the welfare of hundreds—or perhaps thousands—of employees and their families is overwhelming. But this healthy sense of inadequacy is the very thing you need to remain humble, teachable, and open to counsel.

There’s one last thing I would say to new CEOs: take care of yourself. Make your spiritual, emotional, and physical health a priority. During your tenure, you will experience more stress than you can imagine. You need all the resources you can muster. You will be tempted to put yourself last. But if you die of a heart attack, burnout emotionally, or lose your faith in God, you will be of no use to anyone.

By the way, the reason I am so confident in Mark Schoenwald’s leadership of Thomas Nelson is because I believe he exemplifies all seven of these truths. We are blessed to have him at the helm.

Question: What advice would you give to new CEOs, even if you have never been one? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Shawn

    I have no advice to give. However, I just assumed the role of CEO of a Federal Credit Union. As a brother in Christ, I greatly appreciate your expereince, wisdom and insight. I intend to print and keep this brief article in my desk for frequent reference. Thank you and God Bless you as you start down this new trail in your own wal.

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  • Mike_cassity

    Great article! These 7 points are ones we should all take to hart.

  • Robert Ewoldt

    Michael, the last piece of advice (#7) is especially important. You said, “this healthy sense of inadequacy is the very thing you need to remain humble, teachable, and open to counsel.” I think this is vitally important: that a CEO doesn’t become a silo, unable to seek counsel, and without humility.

  • Anonymous

    Great advice for leaders Michael. God bless you on your new endeavors.

  • Romeo

    Thank you for your thoughts and advice. I have found a new Mentor:)

  • Stem

    A CEO is first a servant and then a leader – following in the footsteps of the greatest leader Jesus Christ

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  • Nathan Peterson

    Outstanding advice and not just to CEO’s.  Anyone in a leadership role would benefit from this advice.  A key point is often missed in management:  “Your subordinates drive results not through your managment, but through your leadership”.  There is a distinct difference between managing and leading.

    • Joe Lalonde

      Having worked in retail for a majority of my working life, I must say you are right. You could see it in your coworkers when leadership was done poorly. They would hide in the warehouse, pretend to be doing work, and brushing off customers. Yet when we had managers who led well, the employees were more productive.

  • Chris Honsinger

    Thank you for these basic principles. Somehow I know how powerful these are, but they are very hard to maintain. It is exactly what I need to hear.

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  • joshua07

    I know this post is over 2 years old, but this morning it provided me with a blessing. Recently my leadership role has changed. Though it has changed for the better, the transition has left me confused in how to fulfill my new role. Recently I have found myself working through thoughts of insecurity and inadequacy.

    This post was a blessing and helped me practically overcome some negative thought about change, refocus my attention on what matters and embrace this new position with a proactive mind.