Three years in, one CEO's lessons

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The CEO of The Martin Agency offers some insights from the corner office

Congratulations! You're the new CEO. Here's your big office, your big raise — and oh yeah, your big learning curve. No matter how much you've prepared or how much you think you know about what it's like to be a CEO, when you take this job, you aren't prepared and you don't know.

I've lived it for three years now. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, done some things right and learned more than a few lessons along the way. Here are the most important.

People are more ______ than you think. More resilient, intelligent, dedicated, well-intended, observant, trustworthy. They're also more selfish, political, suspicious and stubborn. In short, they're human. And their interactions with you magnify their humanity because every interaction with the CEO is a high-stakes moment. You'll never eliminate the stress or distractions in those interactions, but you can reduce them. Turn it into positive energy. It'll help you get the best from your people and reduce the political noise that gets in the way of doing the right thing.

Do it now. I'm a muller over-er. A seer of all sides. A "let me think about it and I'll get back to you," kind of guy. With momentous decisions, that's not a bad thing. But day-to-day overdeliberation can build unsustainable stress as issues pile up in your mind. And it can paralyze your company as everyone waits for your decision. Ninety percent of your decisions can be made quickly. Make them and act. It creates momentum and energy that's contagious.

Go home. The job won't hand you a vacation. It won't send you home early. It won't decide you've put in enough hours today. There will always be another email to write, another call to make, another PowerPoint to review. It can wait till tomorrow. Go home. Be with your kids, your partner, your friends. Laugh. Talk about anything but work. Sleep in. Stop thinking about the job for a while. You'll be so much better when you get back. In the old days, "I haven't had a vacation in four years" was a boast. Today it's an admission of failure.

It's worse than you know. Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news — the messenger who takes the bullet. You must create an environment where your people feel safe to tell you when things aren't good. Find your trusted advisors and hold them close. Make unvarnished honesty part of their evaluation criteria. Don't curse your people for bringing problems to you, thank them. You can't help solve a problem you don't know about. And if your people can't tell you about problems, well ...

Bad things will happen. It's the nature of the job. Most of those things won't be your fault. A big part of being a CEO is responding to unexpected shocks. There are more people watching to see how you respond than there are judging you for the trouble you find yourself in. Move forward. Find the opportunity in the crisis and don't waste energy feeling sorry for yourself. When bad things happen because of mistakes you made, write them down. What did you learn? What will you do differently next time? In three years, you might end up with the fodder for an article.

Trust people with the truth. Especially when it's unpleasant. You don't have time for ambiguity when it comes to matters of subpar performance, challenging situations or changes that urgently need to happen. And your people want your honest opinion, direction, criticism and drive for improvement, not just your praise. It will energize them and make them better. And it creates shared responsibility for fixing problems — increasing the likelihood of a swift and positive resolution.

You're not alone. You're ultimately accountable, but you don't have to be alone. You're surrounded by amazing people. (If you're not, you've got a problem you need to address immediately.) Bring them into your confidence. Share the company's strategic challenges and expectations with them, give them big goals and the space to achieve them, and hold your people accountable. There's nothing better than celebrating a big win with an excited, empowered, accomplished team of leaders.

You don't have to be perfect. Vulnerability is the new currency of leadership. It’s not the same as weakness; it's humanity. Experiment. The goal is progress, not perfection. Empower your people by saying, "I don't know, what do you think?" The ideal of the infallible CEO has gone the way of the dodo. This job carries enough pressure without saddling yourself with expectations of unattainable perfection.

Your to-do list is too long. Another CEO once told me he became an effective executive when he cut his to-do list from 20 things to three. I'm working on it. But the more you can focus on the truly important things, the more empowered and effective your people will be, the faster you'll be able to move your company toward your goals, and the more you'll enjoy your job.

You're the luckiest person in the world. You've been entrusted with the future of a company you love. You've been given the chance to build a trusted team of achievers, people you can't wait to work with every day. And you've been given the authority to make your vision a reality. That kind of freedom is reserved for a very lucky few. Find the joy in it, even when the challenges feel overwhelming.

And find the lessons. I promise they'll keep coming, you'll keep learning, and you and your company will be better for it.

Matt Williams is CEO of The Martin Agency.


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