Mark C. Thompson is a writer.
You should be the next CEO of your company.
Your track record speaks for itself. That was what your CEO said during your one-on-ones. You are reassured by the camaraderie you feel from a few directors. You hear that the board has other candidates in mind when you're absolutely convinced that you're the right choice.
When you realized that there is a process underway into which you have not had complete visibility, and that you are unsure about how the board will keep score in this race, you felt a shot of excitement.
You haven't had time to invest in learning about what it means to become CEO because you have been so busy doing a great job in your C-level role. Chances are you don't know a lot about how the decision makers will view you.
The board of directors is under more pressure to choose the right leader. There is so much at stake in selecting a new CEO for your company that they are compelled both to fuel a high-stakes internal succession plan and to launch an external championship. You are competing with known candidates who are your peers, along with a group of outside world-class executives whom you might have never expected to be your competitors.
Today's boards of directors are demanding a bigger field of candidates. The CEO will be influenced by many new factors. You may feel that your skills and experience are self-explanatory, or that your CEO and certain board members will make the case for you. Maybe they will, but you are not the only preferred candidate they are considering.
The CEO selection process is likely to be the first time in your career that you face a unique requirement to the corner office: proficient in at least three of the CEO's languages.
1. Language on Wall Street. Every time a new CEO is announced at a public company, investors vote on his candidacy by selling or buying stock in order to assess whether he has the customer-focused experience to drive profitable business. The board's nominating committee is looking for you to demonstrate how you have become proficient in the rhetoric and measures of the financial markets, as well as a visible connection with your customers, vendors, and your supply chain.
If you are already an operating executive, the board may appreciate that, but still worry about whether you have the skills to rally investors and the markets to your vision. If you are a chief marketing officer or chief revenue officer, the board may love your experience with customers, but remain unsure about your skills with Wall Street and employees. If you are a CFO, the board may be reassured that you know Wall Street, but wary that you are too specialized or inexperienced. I have helped many C-level executives get ready to be tested by the board and Wall Street as they approach their new role as CEO. It requires a deep commitment to accelerate their skills in fields that were never their core competency and a willingness to practice the many languages spoken by Wall Street, the board of directors, and even their peers in the C-suite.
2. The C-Suite has a language. The final selection for the CEO's job often comes down to the board's assessment that your peers won't bail when you become their boss. Are your colleagues willing to work for you?
The board doesn't want to cause mass hysteria with your promotion, so it's important that your peers have the final vote. Your reputation as a leader with your teammates is one of the factors that can be used to evaluate whether you are worthy of being their boss. If your peers think that you are arrogant because you make every interaction a contest, or that you don't like learning a new language, then you're losing support for your advancement.
The language of the chief technology officer does not sound like that of the CRO, nor does the legal rhetoric and risk aversion of your general counsel have much in common with the sales pitch coming. Every one of your peers will insist that you show your appreciation for their functions.
Richard Branson told me that the ability for a CEO to show compassion and enthusiasm for his peers was one of the top criteria for picking a leader. Sir Richard should know that Virgin has over 400 companies under that brand. Sir Richard said that as a CEO candidate, you are making a serious shift from what made you successful in all your roles. It won't help your candidacy if you act like an opponent. If you invest time and effort inspiring employees, you will be more effective as a leader than if you are a rival.
3. The board has a language. The next CEO will be selected by your board. The biggest responsibility of the board of directors is to hire and fire the CEO. To win the confidence of the board's nominating committee, you need to demonstrate extraordinary breadth and nuanced understanding of the company's key stakeholders.
If you are a senior executive, you may not have had enough time to get to know all the directors. It may seem that some directors have more power and influence than others, but any one of them can make or break your shot at this job. While the board must endorse you for the role, limited visibility and experience with you as a candidate is a liability that is hard to overcome. Most of the time, your exposure to the board comes from highly scripted presentations at board meetings. You should have met the board at dinner and board meetings. You are often seen only as a specialized expert in your swim lane, rather than as captain of the overall team in the strategic context of a CEO.
The power of the current CEO is overstated by most candidates. Each board member judging your competency is part of the CEO's reality. You must take inventory of the board's interests and win the endorsement of every director if you want to get the support of the top brass. Your board members are more diverse in their focus and expertise. Some past CEOs are at your company or in a different industry. Most board members are former CFOs, COOs, audit partners, and professors who have never run a business. Most of your board members have not actually been a CEO.
A mentor who is a long-term director of the company is an increasingly popular practice in leadership development programs. The board mentorship relationship gives you some critical visibility into the board's point of view. The board member's experience will benefit you. The entire board's perception of your leadership capacity will not be represented by that perspective. They only see their fellow board members at board meetings and interim conference calls. Many sitting CEOs are not keen to allow every C-suite executive on their team to foster separate relationships with board members out of concern that it might distract the board or increase management complexity or that it will diminish the CEO's own power.
It's important for you to know how the board views you when you're on the short list. As a coach, I'm usually tasked by the board to run your 360 and check in with each board member, who typically tell me in private the critical CEO candidate measures they are reluctant to share directly with the candidates. It's rare for long-tenured directors to give direct, frank feedback to ambitious executives. They don't want to surprise you, or raise your expectations.
The message here is to consider each director as a potential arbiter in this chapter of your career, regardless of how successful you have been as a C-suite executive. Even though you never want anyone to think that you are campaigning on your own behalf or that the process is political, you are still running for office. The dynamics are complex, and what is certain is that your candidacy for the CEO job means you must win hearts and minds in a new way with the board, your peers, and your team.
If you are on the short list for CEO, your board's nominating committee believes you are qualified. Don't think you're well positioned to get the job. Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, applies the same principle to her role as a chief executive as do gold medal winners on the Olympic team. The humility to engage world-class coaches to maximize their chances of making history is what world-class contender all have in common.
The International Coaching Federation has information about professional executive coaching.
Mark Thompson was named the world's No. 1 CEO coach by Thinkers50/Global Leading Coaches and the American Management Association. He is the chairman of the alliance.
The world's largest organization for the advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching is the ICF. The 50,000-plus members located in more than 140 countries and territories work toward the common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and uphold the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organizations, ICF is able to empower professional coaches, coaching clients, organizations, communities, and the world through coaching. For more information, visit coachingfederation.org.
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