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Business Owners

3 Simple Pieces of Advice for First-Time CEOs


Over the course of my career, I’ve worked as an advisor to over 7,000 executives across industries and continents. Every first-time CEO is different — but the mistakes they make are often the same.

Recently, I had the chance to interview Peter Lehrman, founder and CEO of Axial, as part of my new podcast, For You Leaders. A first-time CEO himself, Peter highlighted three areas where he and his fellow first-time CEOs often stumble.

1. Understand that it can be lonely at the top.

In the interview, Peter confessed, “You won’t make it by yourself.” He’s right. You can not turn on “Superman Mode” and do it alone. You need to surround yourself with people, outside of your company, that you know, like, and trust.

Leaders need to surround themselves with people who can provide different perspectives and advice. We all have blind spots. Peter chose to confide in members of his family, who could serve as a personal support network. He also took advantage of mentors and me as a sounding board for business advice.

The key is to have people you can pick up the phone when you need some help — or just someone to listen to you. Sometimes you need a mentor. Sometimes you need a peer. Sometimes you just need a sanity check. You need someone to confide in when it gets lonely at the top.

2. Don’t do it for the money.

[pull_right]“You almost have to think of it as a non-profit.” You need to be passionate and have absolute resolve in your company and the mission.[/pull_right]Peter said, “You almost have to think of it as a non-profit.” You need to be passionate and have absolute resolve in your company and the mission. You need to have a non-profit mindset. I see the same resolve in every successful CEO I have the chance to work with. They do their job for the mission. They know the money will follow.

If you are doing it for the money, it will become obvious very quickly. Your true motives will eventually bubble to the surface. Most of the time that motives manifest in material ways, but it can also be found in the desire for status, power and influence.

If your company’s mission is tough to get passionate about, maybe it is time to revisit the mission. Or don’t focus on what your business does — think about what happens through your business. You provide jobs, support families, and contribute to the economy. The list of what happens through your business is endless.

3. It gets harder the higher you get.

If you have big dreams it gets harder as you grow. Peter said, “The higher you go, the harder it gets.” Nothing kills a business faster than success. This may seem counterintuitive and often catches leaders off guard.

When clients visit me in Colorado, even extremely fit CEOs get short of breath climbing the stairs. It doesn’t mean they aren’t in shape. There’s nothing wrong with them. They simply aren’t acclimated to being at a higher elevation.

Many people start a business, but few are able to grow a business. The higher you go, the thinner the air.

Successful leaders know that success — and failure — leave footprints. The higher you go, there are fewer footprints to follow. Many companies make it to basecamp, but few reach the summit. You can learn from the successes and failures of others as you make your way to the top.

If you can remember Peter’s three pieces of advice, you are much more likely to not just make it to the top, you’re more likely to stay on top. Remember that you don’t have to recreate the wheel as a CEO. That’s classic first time CEO thinking. Leverage the experience of others to act like an experienced leader.

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