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 ©iStockphoto.com/vernonwiley, Image #9571360

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/vernonwiley

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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