Advice for a new CEO

10 steps to succeed in the corner office.

February 19, 2021

Recently, a friend became the new CEO of a credit union. This is her first opportunity to sit in the corner office. She asked me for advice and I was happy to oblige.

I told her it’s been a little over two decades since I first became a CEO to a board of directors. I felt some of the same anxieties she feels now. Like her, I figured the first thing I should do is ask for advice.

I contacted several successful CEOs I personally knew who I believed would give me good counsel. I thought they’d have experiences and wisdom that could help me get started.

I also called a few former CEOs whom I learned had been fired from their jobs. I wanted to know what happened and the advice they would have for me as well.

Everyone I called, except maybe one, was gracious with their time and guidance. They shared what worked and what did not pan out so well.

I have compiled a list of advice I received, along with some discoveries I have made in the meantime.

1. Find your authentic management style

Every CEO has a management style. Their style is the way they like to work, process information, communicate, and interact with others.

I thought I should mimic successful leaders to improve my prospects for success. The advice I received was to be myself. This does not mean I should not be mindful of opportunities to make improvements.

Ultimately, I need be genuine and authentic with the folks around me.

2. Seek fair compensation philosophy from the outset

New CEOs often have to negotiate their salaries with the board. This can be an awkward moment. Sometimes, boards will shortcut the negotiations with the idea of returning to the bargaining table later. I was advised that this almost never happens.

A new CEO should seek a compensation package from the outset and compensation philosophy that is consistent with how all staff should be treated.

3. Hire direct reports who you trust

One colleague was fired because his second in command convinced the board to oust him. Later, the board decided it could not trust that executive either and fired her. Both lost.

He advised me to choose folks who can be trusted. I value ethics and principles over any professional trait. In many cases, we can teach technical skills. But it’s difficult to teach someone who is not ethical nor honest.

4. Have no favorites among the directors

I observed a colleague who would pit his directors against each other to assume more power for himself. This is playing with fire.

Eventually, this will catch up with the CEO. In his case, it did. A successful CEO respects each director and tries to build a good relationship with all.

5. Show deference and respect to the board

This may sound simple, but some CEOs get in trouble because they forget the board is the boss.

The board represents the membership in our case. In some organizations, the board represents stakeholders, investors, or shareholders.

The CEO should be an active listener to the board to ensure staff execution aligns with the board’s expectations and directives.

6. Practice sustainable work/life balance

Management is hard work—at least it should be. Leaders shoulder the weight of their organizations and the welfare of their colleagues. The responsibility can be exhausting.

I have seen firsthand the stress of working yourself into the ground can produce. To maintain a sustainable pace, CEOs should strike a balance between work and home.

7. Communicate effectively with the board

Successful CEOs know it is not productive to hoard information from the board. Nor is it good to surprise the board with stale bad news.

Communication with the board includes being clear about your strategic intent. CEOs who have gotten in trouble with their boards often left the board out of crucial conversations concerning strategic matters.

8. Be mindful of the corporate culture and history

Unless an organization is a de novo, it has a history. A new CEO should be thoughtful about how he/she celebrates the achievement of the past.

The same goes for culture. An astute CEO should respect the corporate culture for what it is. The CEO should look for ways to improve the culture if it is deemed harmful to the vision. Nevertheless, the new CEO begins with the culture inherited.

9. Don’t believe you’re more important than anyone else

There is a common element to all CEO failures: hubris. Leaders who put themselves on a pedestal often find themselves in trouble soon afterward.

Effective leadership is often accompanied by a measure of self-deprecation. Don’t take yourself too seriously. After all, the success of the organization will not be determined by just one individual.

10. Seek diversity of thought

Successful CEOs have advisors in their corner who give them feedback and advice on important decisions. These leaders choose mentors who often don’t think like them.

These CEOs seek diversity of thought to help them grow. Effective CEOs need counselors who will be frank and honest with them.

These are lessons I gathered over the years. I imagine you have also picked up a tip or two on how to manage your career.

Feel welcome to share your observations on what you think generates success at any level. My guess is we will find that any advice for success is good for us all.

MAURICE SMITH is CEO at Local Government Federal Credit Union and Civic Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, N.C.