The past three years as a CEO have been a whirlwind. After a successful corporate career in security and information technologies, I transitioned to TD Insights, a consulting firm focused on private equity retail innovation companies. From Artificial Intelligence (AI) to the Internet-of-Things (IoT), I had the great pleasure of working with leading companies from Silicon Valley to Ireland.
Earlier this year, I took on an additional CEO role for the retail business of a global security company. The rationale was very simple; I have researching the future of retail for some time, and this was an opportunity to now shape it.
There is no perfect way to prepare for the life of a CEO. The same continuous learning strategy adopted for TD Insights many years ago was transitioned into the new role. If you aspire to be a leader, you need to adapt, learn, and try new ideas, or your first time might be your last. Here are five critically important lessons that every CEO must learn.
Focus On the Customer
Success always starts by focusing on the customer. For many years, it has been a personal great pleasure to engage with retailers across the world. The most important lesson learned from many of those encounters is that we all have dreams of advancing our careers.
Success starts by clearly understanding the customer’s pain points and building win-win propositions to address them. To understand the challenges that a retailer faces, you need to walk in their shoes. A favorite activity to this day is to walk stores and speak to both store personnel and shoppers about the power of the brand that makes the retailer unique.
Branding and immersive consumer experiences are the future of retail. Successful retailers understand that differentiated brands continuously build customer loyalty that inspires natural word-of-mouth advertising, amplified today by social media.
The smartphones we carry in our hands is the third retail megatrend that has shifted the power of industry to the consumer. Technology is taking us back to the corner store of many years ago when we knew our shopper by name, understood and anticipated their preferences, as they entered the store.
No matter your industry, today’s market is more competitive than ever before, so the further you are from the customer experience, the more likely your business will not succeed. CEOs should always keep the customer in mind, ideally by looking and when possible, walking in their shoes.
Always Listen to Understand
Active listening is one of the most important skills a person can have, especially someone in a leadership position. When you listen actively, you are listening to understand what the other person is saying, rather than just waiting your turn to say something. By taking the time to really hear what someone is saying, you can learn more about a situation and make smarter decisions.
The adage that we have two ears and one mouth should remind you to listen twice for every time you speak. If you are the new CEO of a business, it is very likely that your team knows much more about the company than you do. Always look for new perspectives. Your staff is the best source of information about critical issues in the organization, potential solutions and which areas of your business consistently perform well.
More critical is leveraging active listening skills with your customers. In retail for example, complacency in not keeping up with consumer demands has killed multiple once industry leading brands.
The intersection of engaged customers with passionate staff members inside stores is the nirvana of successful retail. When brand ambassador passionate consumers meet equally digitally empowered brand ambassador store associates, explosive growth will follow.
As a CEO continuously practice listening skills across your entire business. It is the foundation for great ideas to take your business to that next level of success.
Do NOT Follow the Herd
We tend to expect CEOs to excel at making strategic moves, even if it is just to try something new, to find new ways to improve the company. But research shows otherwise. According to research from McKinsey, whether their company is performing well or not, CEOs tend to make strategic business moves at about the same pace. For example, within their first two years, CEOs in either situation choose to launch a new business or product at nearly identical rates: 38% of companies performing well and 37% of companies performing poorly.
If you are a new CEO, always assess the baseline of your company before making a major organizational change. Whether you have decades of experience or not, every situation is different, so it is important to be open to new ideas to find the most effective approach to leading that business.
Some CEOs cling to tried-and-true methods, sticking to the status quo instead of trying new ideas. It is important to not fall back on the idea of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even if something has been done a certain way for a long time, there could be another idea that is more effective, cost-efficient, or innovative. Particularly in fast-moving industries like retail and technology, embracing change is a fundamental step in driving your company into the future. In today’s digitally connected world, change is your best friend.
Create a Clear Vision
The “vision” of a company can mean many things, but for a CEO, this should include being transparent and leading by example. Trust is the foundation of any strong relationship, and some employees might be uncertain of what a new CEO means for them and their job. However, people also want to know what a CEO stands for, what the business strategy is and what is likely to change or stay the same. Being transparent early and often shows your employees that you want to hear new ideas to improve the business.
Leading by example is another key component to defining the vision of your organization. While CEOs do not often spend much time on managing the day-to-day operations of a company, they are responsible for making strategic decisions to grow the company in the short and long term. As experts in areas like business strategy, leadership coaching and people management, CEOs can teach their team through their own actions. By setting a great example, you will encourage others to work toward the organization’s success.
Lots of great visionary examples are around you in all industries including retail. Take a step back as you begin your leadership journey. Assess your strengths and weaknesses. Exploit the gaps not filled by your competitors. Set a multi-stage milestone vision in motion to successful growth.
And last but most important: deliver results. Do NOT wait too long to act. Although spending months to understand all the ins and outs of a business sounds like being prepared, a CEO is responsible for thousands of decisions, important or not, that guide the direction of a company. Whether you are taking over an existing business, trying to make tough hiring decisions or thinking about new business ventures, your organization will not go anywhere if you do not do something.
Focus on the numbers from DAY 1. Understand the business trajectory. Look for key small wins that improve morale and inspire your team to exceed expectations.
Finance and human resources are your most important allies in your starting CEO role. Whether it is cost containment or increased investment, finance is your ally in making timely decision. An effective human resources department is critical in shaping and growing your winning team.
While this internal focus is important, always remember that it is the customer that pays the bills. As Sam Walton once said, “there is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody from the chairman (and CEO) on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”
What are some lessons you have learned in your experience as a chief executive?