Six years to this day, I left my job after 8 years as a CEO and 25 years in senior managerial and leadership roles. I hopped on a plane bound for Barcelona, my spiritual home, and the start of a year-long sabbatical. I’ve never looked back.
But as I’ve been working on the origins of my own brand story, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about those 8 years in the trenches as a CEO. The successes. The mistakes I made. And the lessons I learnt along the way.
To celebrate my 6 year anniversary, I thought I’d share with you seven of the top lessons I learnt as a CEO. These lessons are equally applicable to people leading small and medium sized businesses as they are to leaders of larger companies.
1. Beware The Law Of Unintended Consequences
If you’ve not come across the Law of Unintended Consequences before, unintended consequences are outcomes that are not the ones you foresaw, anticipated or intended when you set out on your intended course of action. I wrote about this immutable Law earlier in the month. If you’re to avoid getting bitten on the proverbial by outcomes you don’t want, my 8 years as a CEO taught me it pays to develop strategic foresight.
I learnt this lesson the hard way after closing down a much-loved service. I actually had no option but to close that service, and was frankly relieved to do so. It had been endless source of problems and headaches. Mindful that this was a much loved service, I thought I’d clearly communicated the reasons why we’d made the decision, and this had been accepted. Not a bit of it! There was a backlash and major mutiny. This was because I’d made the mistake of thinking everybody was a pragmatic as me and I misunderstood the strength of feeling about the service closing.
2. Look At The World As It Is, Not As We Want It To Be
Breakthrough results come about as a result of good decisions, diligently executed and accumulated one after the other. The starting point for good decisions is to confront the brutal reality of our situation. To look at the situation as is; not as we wish it were. Facts are better than wishful thinking.
This is why it’s so important to do those boring tasks we all hate – checking our key metrics including our sales results, keeping our financial records up to date and completing a cash flow forecast. Hard data doesn’t lie. It tells us the brutal facts of reality.
But amidst the brutal facts, we also have to sustain unwavering faith and optimism that we will prevail, come what may. My article, Four Business Lessons From The Stockdale Paradox, explores this idea in more detail.
3. Create An Unambiguous Culture
It’s tempting to assume everybody has the same standards as us. But nothing could be further from the truth. A great organisation is the result of people who take disciplined action every day within a framework of freedom and responsibility. This starts with getting the ‘right people on the bus.’
Creating an unequivocal culture in your business is hard. It requires absolute clarity about the values your company is founded on. You have to ‘rinse your own cottage cheese’ (see below) and be relentlessly disciplined in applying your values yourself.
4. Get The Right People On The Bus
People often make the mistake of thinking that a great business is the result of vision, direction and strategy. These are hugely important. But research has proven that it’s actually more important to have the ‘right people on the bus’ (and by definition to get the wrong people off the bus). Then to figure out where to drive the bus.
If you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage your staff largely goes away. The right people don’t need to be tightly managed or fired up. They’re naturally self-motivated by their own inner drive to produce the best results, and their desire to be part of something great.
5. Pay Top Of The Market
Or at least pay as much as you can afford. If you want to attract the very best candidates – the type of naturally self-motivated people who need little managing that I describe above – you’ve got to be prepared to pay for this through a combination of a good salary and excellent employment benefits. If you pay peanuts, you will not build a team of superstar, loyal employees, willing to go the extra mile.
I say this because in my CEO role, finances were permanently tight. Whilst we offered good employee benefits, we weren’t in a position to pay the level of salary I wanted. Whilst sometimes I was able to recruit highly talented employees, there were occasions when key posts remained vacant because I could not find suitable candidates willing to work at our pay levels.
6. Rinse Your Own Cottage Cheese
If you want your business to be number 1 in your market, you’ve got to pay fanatical attention to detail and improve continuously. This is exactly what one of my favourite brands, The White Company, does.
The analogy for ‘rinsing your own cottage cheese comes from the example of a world-class athlete called Dave Scott who won the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon six times. He believed that a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet would give him an extra edge. Despite burning through 5,000 calories in training every day, he would literally rinse his cottage cheese to remove any residual fat. Even though there was no evidence that he needed to do so.
Success in business lies in the discipline to do whatever it takes to become number 1 in your field, and then to make continuous improvements from there.
7. Prioritise Your Own Self-care
Working as a CEO and running your own business is exhausting and relentless. The bucks stops with you when it comes to all decisions. That’s not to say it isn’t also hugely creative, and immensely rewarding. It is.
As an entrepreneur, especially in the start-up stages, it’s easy to push yourself to your limits and experience burnout. That’s why it’s so important to prioritise down time, to get enough sleep and to eat healthily.
Experience as a CEO is especially valuable when you’re scaling a business. Because you’ve already had that experience and know you have what it takes. But when it comes to starting a business, all experience is valuable, and transferable to running a business.
Join The Conversation
Question: What lessons have you drawn from a previous career and applied to your business? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share how you’re going to use this in the comments box below.
Explore These Additional Resources
Did you miss?
- The Origins Of My Brand Story
- Beware The Law Of Unintended Consequences
- Four Business Lessons From The Stockdale Paradox
- 9 Hiring Essentials For A High Calibre Team
- How To Build Brand Admiration Like The White Company
Work With Me
I’m Denyse Whillier, a Sussex and London based business coach and consultant. I work with responsible business leaders to build profitable and successful brands that do good, make money and help to change the world. I draw on Built To Succeed™, my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO.
I’d love to start a conversation about whether we’re a good fit to work together. Simply use this link to arrange an informal Skype coffee chat. There’s no hard sell. Just solid advice and a straightforward, honest assessment of whether 1:1 business coaching (or business consultancy) would be right for you.
FREE Download: Create A Brand Your Customers Love
Download my FREE 'How To' guide, complete with worksheets, and turn your brand into one that customers love, trust, and respect.