What Do You Need To Know To Be A CEO?


Wednesday, 9.42pm.

Sheffield, U.K.

Would you want the top job – to be in charge – to be the one with the responsibility?

Shakespeare said it best – Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

The thing is… even if you never want to be the CEO of a massive multi-billion dollar organisation, you’re still the CEO of something. Your own life. Your family – even if it’s a joint role.

And it’s worth taking the effort to think like a CEO – to think like a person who has the responsibility for making decisions, allocating resources and deciding strategy.

Because… as the saying goes, you’re either working towards your own goals, or you’re working towards someone else’s goals.

So, what are the key things you need to know – distilled from this McKinsey interview guide?

1. What’s your direction of travel?

All strategy comes down to this question – which path are you going to take, which road will you follow?

Is it the one with the footfall, or the one less travelled by?

You can dress this up as vision, mission and lots of other buzzwords, but the first decision you make is to look around and point in the direction that you think is the right one.

2. Where did you start?

You’ve heard the saying, if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know when you’ve reached there?.

Well, if that’s point 1, the point following closely behind is knowing where you started from.

The ambition of the vast majority of professional managers is to manage their numbers.

They need to set and meet targets – they’re under enormous pressure from the markets and investors and stakeholders and those kinds of people.

Beware of people who always make their numbers. As Warren Buffett wrote, people who always make their numbers will at some point be tempted to make up their numbers.

If you want to make real, meaningful change, you need to be clear on where you started.

That’s your baseline. And that is fixed. Although, as we know from painful experience, nothing is really fixed. A number can be anything you want it to be.

I read a story of a young person who went to his family accountant to be trained. He did the accounts as the rules said, and showed them to the accountant.

The accountant laughed, called his uncle and asked how much profit they wanted to report this year. Then, the accountant reworked the numbers to make that figure work, staying within the rules.

So, perhaps it’s best not to worry too much about accounts.

Cash flow, on the other hand, that’s another thing altogether.

3. Culture – what’s that?

Well, chasing point 2, culture is about the belief system that builds around you as the CEO.

A CEO that encourages gaming, like in the accounting example below, will end up creating an organisation where gaming is considered a normal way of operating.

Bernie Madoff anyone?

On the one hand, creating a good culture is pretty easy – just treat people as they would like to be treated.

On the other hand, it’s a chaotic and constantly evolving function of social groups, and organisations are more about politics than about achieving any real rational purpose.

And because most of us know what we want but find it hard to appreciate what others want, we’re sort of blind to what needs to happen.

But that’s something you can learn by simply opening your eyes and ears. As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot by watching

4. Then, it’s all about you

This is simple. What skills are needed to do the top job.

Then, do you have those skills?

5. What do you need if you’re not going to fail?

Many people think that being the CEO is about being the boss – having final say in everything.

That only happens when you also have control – when you’re the founder or have a controlling share or both.

The rest of the time you have people breathing down your neck. You’ve been hired to fix things, or grow the business, or make money. So why aren’t you?

You need to be clear on the non-negotiables, the red lines of your career as the boss.

Do you want final say on hiring? Do you get to tell the Chairman that his or her kid can’t just get a senior job?

You need to be clear on what you need to get the job done – no questions asked.

6. Are you going to make friends with everyone?

As the boss, you’re going to be the face of the company, inside and outside.

You’ll need to be friends with the cleaning crew, the administrators, the consultants, the contractors, investors, shareholders… the whole bunch of people that all want some time or attention from you.

Are you the kind of person that likes that? Or can at least cope with that? Or be really good at that?

You really need to be the kind of person that goes and sees what’s happening at the front line. That mucks in. That has facetime with as many people as you can.

They won’t come to you – you need to go to them. At least that’s what you need to do if you see your job as CEO as serving and enabling your team to do their best work.

Because… when it comes down to it you don’t actually do anything as the CEO – whether you succeed or not depends on whether everyone else around you has the tools and ability and drive to do their best.

So, perhaps the most important thing you should do as CEO is remove the things that get in the way of the people you rely on.


Karthik Suresh

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