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Learning How To Be A CEO? Start Here

by Clark Vitulli | Posted on November 8, 2016

“The solution to CEO isolation can’t be found in a book, learned in a course, or gleaned from a coach alone.” Leon Shapiro and Leo Bottary, The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth, and Success

Learning how to be a CEO is a trial by fire. Until you have occupied that seat at the table, sat in that corner office, or had the weight of an entire organization on your shoulders, it is difficult to grasp the scope of this leadership role. Or the isolation. Who do you ask for help? To whom do you turn for guidance and support? These are questions that Mary*, an inexperienced CEO, was grappling with as her company struggled.

Growing Pains
Mary worked within her company for years. Her strong background in finance and accounting, coupled with an in-depth knowledge of the business, helped propel her to the top job. And… here she was. She’d never run a business before, and the pressure on her – on every CEO – was tremendous. It threatened to crush both her and the company.

In a time when professional services companies are experiencing growth (especially in “hot” sectors like IT), Mary’s organization was stagnant. Why? She had great people, a solid service offering. What was she doing wrong – or not doing right? How could she seize the opportunities she had to grow?

For Mary, failure, or simply mediocrity, was not acceptable. After floundering by herself for over a year, she knew she needed help. Understanding the value of support from fellow CEOs, she researched every peer group she could find. Mary didn’t want a good teacher. She didn’t want an MBA leading a class. She wanted CEOs who lived and breathed the same pressures and struggles she did and who overcame them to lead with confidence.

Half-Baked Potato
Vistage was a natural fit. Mary’s peers, and her Vistage Chair, helped her clarify her goals – and also identify her pain point. See, Mary was a reader. She tried to learn how to become a good CEO by devouring book after book. One quarter, she’d implement this hot topic. The next, she’d reverse course and try another trend. Nothing worked.

In Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Vistage, Tim McCarthy recalls some of the best advice he received from renowned executive and entrepreneur David Camiener: “You are the man of the half-baked potato.” McCarthy had a propensity for having a great new idea – all the time. The group helped him learn to “bake [his] potatoes fully” before he threw in the next batch to cook.

This was Mary’s challenge: she was serving up half-baked potatoes. One of her peers recommended a book. Yes, another book! The difference was that Mary could use this one –Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business  by Gino Wickman – as a template for running her business.

Traction focuses on strengthening six key components of leadership and conveys real-world experience. As Wickman writes, it’s not a “silver bullet management book or flavor-of-the-month strategy.” Instead, it provides useful, applicable tips that leaders can use – starting today.

Getting a Grip
Rather than jumping from idea to idea, Mary used Wickman’s guide to gain traction in her business. She learned to put order into the chaos. One example: her weekly meetings – previously disorganized re-hashings of last week’s news – became sharp, focused, and productive.

Mary’s newly forged command over the company, and the confidence that comes with it, extends to other areas. After her first year in Vistage, she led the business to its best year yet. The next year, she’s managed to keep that pace. The top and bottom line results are impressive – but more impressive still is Mary.

She’s a real CEO now. Through her story of growth, she brings validity and realism to discussions. Her insights inspire and instruct. Mary’s perspectives and experiences benefit every other member of her peer group as they work to overcome their own challenges and pursue their own goals.

The value of Vistage is that you give as much, and as meaningfully, as you get. Learning how to be a CEO may be a trial by fire, but there is no need to go it alone.

*This name has been changed for confidentiality.