Excel in Your First Year
in the C-Suite

  1. Get Started
  2. Listen First
  3. Clarify Your
    Priorities
  4. Strengthen
    Your Team
  5. Elevate
    Your Thinking
  6. Engage Your Board
  1. Get
    Started
  2. Listen First
  3. Clarify Your Priorities
  4. Strengthen Your Team
  5. Elevate Your Thinking
  6. Engage Your Board

Clarify Your Priorities

Make sense of competing demands by identifying what’s most important for the company—and what’s most worthy of your time.

Develop Your Agenda

Opt for specifics when outlining your agenda, said many veterans of the C-suite. Remember: Your effectiveness is proven by your ability to create solutions, not by how complex they are—nor by how brilliant they make you seem. “Signal that you aren’t just interested in … shiny objects,” advised Jon Francis, chief data and analytics officer at General Motors. “As you establish your priorities, make sure they are clearly aligned to business outcomes,” he said. When in doubt, “follow the dollars. … If you aren’t driving revenue or cutting costs, [it’s] hard to get a lot of advocacy for the work,” he said.

  • Get Started
  • Listen First
  • Clarify Your
    Priorities
  • Strengthen
    Your Team
  • Elevate
    Your Thinking
  • Engage
    Your Board
“Signal that you aren’t just interested in … shiny objects. … As you establish your priorities, make sure they are clearly aligned to business outcomes.”
– Jon Francis, Chief Data and Analytics Officer, General Motors

Let your CEO’s priorities inform your own, said others. Successful strategies for your function might not always equate to successful strategies for the company as outlined by the CEO. “Some CEOs are going to be a little more externally focused [on] customers, investors. Some CEOs are much more internally focused [on] people, operations,” said Dustin Smith, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Wabash. To gain alignment, spend as much time as possible with your CEO to understand their priorities and their preferred working styles. Identify how much detail they prefer in communications, which emails they like to be CC’ed on, and how frequently they expect updates, said Smith.

Don’t underestimate the learning curve of working directly for a CEO, advised Laurel Spencer, senior vice president of global sales and marketing at Amcor. Once you are in your new role, the CEO must “get results through you, not through somebody who gets them through you,” she said. “You were working for operators; now you’re working for the most senior person”—whose priorities and scope of responsibility are often very different.

To ensure your objectives are practical, ground them in data, said Jennifer Temple, executive vice president and chief communications officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Data gleaned from benchmarking, audits, or stakeholder surveys should be presented to your board of directors and executive committee “to create a shared understanding of the landscape and the foundation of your strategy,” she said. “[It] will empower you to make bold decisions, give you confidence when challenged, and provide a yardstick to continually demonstrate your progress.”

Protect Your Time

Those who have spent time in the C-suite acknowledged that the job can be a 24/7 gig—a fact that many underestimated during their first year. “With so many people to talk to, meetings to sit in on, and networking to be done … time has been one of my biggest challenges,” said Temple. Your calendar should reflect only your most critical priorities, said Chip Bergh, former president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. Not only will this keep you focused on what’s important, but it will also do the same for your team. “Everybody knows what I’m spending my time on, and the best way to send a signal to the organization about what’s important is [to] spend your time on the important stuff,” said Bergh.

“The best way to send a signal to the organization about what’s important is [to] spend your time on the important stuff.”
Chip Bergh, Former President and CEO, Levi Strauss & Co.

“People will happily bring problems and drop them in your lap if you let them,” said Wanda Austin, former president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation. “So you need to be clear on … the things that only you can do and set your priorities to make sure that you get those done.” For Bergh, “That means saying, ‘No,’ to a lot of things.”

Here’s how to prioritize what’s most important amid the commotion of your first months in the C-suite:

  • Secure small wins quickly. “Reshaping a department or implementing a new vision can take time,” said Temple. “Garnering quick wins and praise—for you and your team—can help build loyalty, generate positive buzz, boost confidence, and garner resources.”
  • Empower your EA to curate your calendar according to your priorities. Communicate your priorities to your EA, who can use them to inform which meetings end up on your calendar and which ones should be delegated so they don’t prevent you from executing your plan, advised Temple.
  • Don’t ignore your own well-being. You can’t lead others if you’re not taking care of yourself, said Austin. Take preventive measures such as exercise or meditation to “ensure that you’re able to engage on the hard problems of the day.”
How to Say “No”
When everything is important, nothing is important. Laurel Spencer, senior vice president of global sales and marketing at Amcor, outlined how to stay focused on your top priorities by getting comfortable with saying, “No.”
Strengthen Your Team

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