“I get up and I run a marathon every single day. It’s relentless.”
“All the hard decisions come to me. They’re always hard and there’s never an easy answer.”
These are just some of the answers I get from clients when I ask them what it’s like being CEO.
There’s a Chinese proverb that literally means, ‘it’s cold at the top of the mountain’. You will recognise it as a cousin of the infamous ‘it’s lonely at the top of the mountain’. Whilst admittedly it does sound a little cliché, the reality for many top executives is that life at the top is often harsh and lonely. Leadership responsibilities come loaded with long days, constant pressure and emotional strain. The hours are relentless, your reputation and legacy are at risk, and you have to work hard to keep some semblance of order in your personal life.
The challenges of leadership at the top of that mountain are, as the marathon running client pointed out, relentless. Something of a Sisyphean task. Sisyphus is that mythological figure condemned to repeatedly roll a boulder to the top of the hill, as it tumbled back each time, just before he reached the top.
The reality is that the top of that mountain is lonely and cold. “So… Why do you want to be CEO?” I ask those who are preparing their run for the top.
Furthermore, one’s view of leadership can be coloured by the incumbent CEO. Perhaps she has made some sacrifices you aren’t willing to make. You have followed their footsteps to the top, but now you need to find a new path. Too often, people shape their view of the impending role based on the approach taken by the incumbent. But the truth is it’s up to you what you choose to shout from the top. It’s up to you to consider the path afresh and leave a different footprint.
When Paul Polman became CEO of Unilever, he made it very clear that he believed business couldn’t prosper in a community that suffers. He was going to prioritise the community over the business with the view that if Unilever did the right thing by the community then the business would prosper. He also made it clear to the board that if they didn’t want that kind of CEO then they should not appoint him.
If you aspire to be CEO, it’s very important to have that level of clarity. In other words, you are clear about both the path you will carve out and the approach you will take to being a CEO.
There’s a difference to aspiring to be a CEO because it’s the next logical step in a career and really wanting that role. The difference is a sense of destiny, rather than a sense of entitlement. If you become CEO, it’s up to you to craft that role. You need to grasp what you bring to the table, not in comparison with the incumbent, but in accord with your best self and best contribution. You need to ask, ‘what kind of leader do I want to be?’ and ‘how will I become the person I need to be, to be CEO?’ Are you prepared to change and grow and develop to become that kind of CEO?
When you reach that mountain top, it does not have to be lonely. Find yourself a confidant, a guide, a person who can help you keep looking out to the horizon, rather than over the cliff edge. Someone who can keep you grounded when the sun shines and all goes well, and someone who can give you courage when the wind blows in the darkness.
When you’re the CEO, you don’t have time for self-reflection or self-analysis. In the absence of a support system, the combined evils of burnout and hubris become a real threat. This is when the value of having a trusted advisor becomes unparalleled. They help gain and maintain clarity and assemble thoughts in a more coherent manner. You can expand your view of the mountain and see things through multiple lenses.
However, prior to becoming CEO, you must find answers to the questions: “why do you want to be CEO?” and “what kind of CEO will you be?”. Because when you’re standing on that mountain top, and the wind is blowing a freezing gale, you will find strength in your purpose.
Finally, if you do want someone to help you prepare your push for the mountain top, or stand with you while you are there, please get in touch. We will set up a 30-minute call to learn about you, and offer some suggestions for your own journey.