Getting It Right as a First-Time CEO

May 3, 2023
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At RHR, we work with hundreds of CEOs every year. Many are first-time CEOs from outside the organization, and transitioning into such a role is like no other. At this moment in history, not only do new CEOs have to figure out the current state of their organization—where it needs to go and how they will get there—but they also have to address a wide array of emerging issues. From pandemics to social justice movements and climate change, there is an onslaught of big issues that CEOs need to address in thoughtful and impactful ways

Based on our experience, we’ve compiled the key pieces of advice every first-time CEO should know to help them hit the ground running. Below are the first five—and keep an eye on our blog for the second installment coming next month.


1) Keep, let go, and learn anew

Any transition to a new role requires you to reflect on what knowledge and skills you need to retain from past experiences (keep), what you need to value less (or let go of), and what you need to acquire (or learn) that is new. Pay particular attention to what is your default mode. 

For example, if being an expert or the person who comes up with the answers to the hardest problems is core to your identity, you may need to shed that part of yourself and start to place more value on hiring great people to solve those problems. 

While this particular example may seem like something you learn as a first-time manager, it is still a reality that many CEOs have the “smartest person in the room” as a core part of their identity. When they have enormous structural power, this often unconscious predisposition can cause real problems, especially when key talent stops thinking on their own and “delegates up” to the CEO to solve all the problems. 

To do: 

  • Spend time assessing yourself along the three dimensions of keep, let go and learn anew as you enter the CEO role. 
  • Be brutally honest. If you don’t have one already, find an advisor that can help you hold the mirror up to yourself so that you can ensure you leverage your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses as you start fresh with a new organization. Our recent blog provides more information on how to find the right support.


2) Ground yourself in purpose and values as you manage the normal excitement and anxiety around this transition 

Becoming a CEO for the first time is like no other career transition. Normal anxieties come up, most notably imposter syndrome. This can occur as you become aware of how lonely the job can be, as well as a dramatic increase in the feeling of accountability.

Ultimately, you are accountable for everything that goes on in your company, which can feel overwhelming as you start to make big decisions that impact the brand, the investors, and your people. On the other hand, taking on this role can be exhilarating as you start to exercise your leadership muscles in totally new ways by, first and foremost, having control over all the levers of the company. 

The key to managing these normal stressors is to revisit and reground yourself with why you are here (yes, here on this planet) and what you cherish and believe in (your personal values). This reaffirmation of who you are and how you want to evolve will help you bring authenticity and purpose to your new organization. These aspects of leadership are paramount in effectively leading multiple generations of talent that have come to demand this from their CEOs. 

To do: 

  • Ensure you have daily routines that center you. Identify when these feelings of insecurity come up, then put them in their rightful place and move on. 
  • Reflect on and revise your personal purpose and values statement. As you begin to shape the company you now run, who you are at your core will have a powerful influence on what the company is and its values. Ensure that the overlap of company values and personal values resonates with you. 


3) Assess the company

Many CEOs take on their first role with a sense of what the current situation is and where they want to take the company. Being an outsider, however, can be trickier even if you have already identified key strategic issues that you think need to be addressed. 

More often than not, outside CEOs are surprised by how much worse the situation is once they have had a chance to dig into the business. Unless the business is in a crisis, taking the necessary time to do a thorough “current state assessment” of the company and top team is essential to helping you prioritize issues and know what to address in three phases: now, soon, or later. 

Take advantage of the virtual environment to host many one-on-one interviews or small forums of people to personally hear from an accurate sample of employees and other stakeholders. It also allows you to begin the change management process by engaging personally with people, letting them experience who you are as a leader and a person, and furthering their thinking on what the issues really are in the organization. 

This is also the time for you to consider who your thought partners are during this process. Sometimes it’s helpful to have outside firms do a parallel assessment of the organization while you are doing your “listening tour.” These external advisors can complement your insights, confirming, broadening, or deepening your view on different issues. 

Most importantly, realize that you will not get this opportunity to bring a fresh set of eyes to the organization again. After a few months, you will already have biases and ways of thinking that will be less likely to question and think creatively. Take advantage of this moment!

To do: 

  • Highly structure your first 100 days to accomplish your current state assessment and listening tour.
  •  Plan to bring your team together at the end to share your insights and begin the alignment and prioritization process of what you will tackle and over what time period. 


4) Assess the team

While it’s a cliche, most CEOs, especially first-timers, are too slow to make key talent decisions—and they do regret it. Replacing key talent from the outside takes a minimum of three months, so the sooner you can make the important people decisions of who stays, goes, or gets repurposed, the sooner the search process for the talent you need can begin. 

If you have a very relationship-based style as a leader, then you are particularly vulnerable to this since people can feel like you are creating an emotional distance between you and them. Keep in mind that it’s perfectly fine to have some distance while you are assessing the current state, and it’s necessary for you to remain objective, especially about people. 

As you interview your team and other key talent, you will be assessing them at the same time. Most will expect that you are doing that, so give yourself the time and permission to do a thorough job of it. Importantly, after your assessment phase of key talent is over, follow that up with how you will invest in those who will remain with the organization, which will set up a paradigm of development and growth for the talent in your organization. 

To do: 

  • Define the critical roles before you interview team members and use that as your criteria to assess them. 
  • Balance speed and quality in your talent decisions, but do not belabor them. 
  • Lastly, ensure you complement your experience and skill set with those who think differently but operate from the same value set.


5) Shape the culture

While assessing the culture is part of your company assessment, who you are as CEO will profoundly shape the organization’s culture. Your personality, what you value, and what you pay attention to will all become what others start to value and emphasize. Put culture on your roadmap from day one.

Boards are starting to pay much more attention to company culture for the obvious reason that a bad culture creates too much risk for an enterprise. And with the reemergence of ESG and diversity, inclusion, and belonging as critical culture drivers, how you measure your culture’s health and effectiveness will be important for all stakeholders.

To do: 

  • Think about how you define culture and how you will start to talk to the board about it. 
  • Give yourself and your top leadership team permission to find nontraditional metrics to measure the health of your culture. Commit to those metrics and share those with the board, investors, employees, and your customers. 

Although it may be a daunting time, this advice will help you focus your energies on your new role. In the second part of this series, we’ll be looking at managing stakeholders, commenting on global issues, and building your personal resilience. 

To go more in-depth on RHR’s expertise in CEO coaching, visit our website page:

David Astorino is a senior partner and member of RHR International’s operating committee. For more than 20 years, he has been applying his expertise to complex client engagements, helping CEOs and boards of directors successfully drive the human side of transformational change within their organizations.