The Tech CEO Success Model (Pt.2): The Top 5 Leadership Pitfalls

Pete Daffern has been a CEO three times over, and overseen US and EMEA operations for a handful of multi-billion dollar companies. Here Pete lists the Top 5 pitfalls he sees most CEOs stumble upon at some point in their journey.

1. Remember you’re a CEO

There are two ways of looking at this one. The first is as simple as your wardrobe. How you present yourself, down to your clothes, says something about you and your company. You can’t help it. Steve Jobs may have appeared the archetypal jeans-and-trainers CEO, but look closer and you’ll see a carefully curated image that was perfectly in sync with the emerging Apple brand. This isn’t just about what T-shirt you wear though, it’s about a daily state of awareness, what you say, what you don’t say, your moods, your demeanor, everything, folk are watching. How you come across to your people and your public is an active statement of your company, whether you like it or not. Be aware of that and think twice before you raise your voice, buy that purple waistcoat, or for that matter, Lamborghini.

Here’s the second part of this pitfall: a company with an ok CEO will only ever be an ok company. That’s to say that your performance and ability sets the bar for the whole company. Comfortable with that? If not, then perhaps you’re not understanding the importance of your role. Other people matter too, of course, but you, as CEO, matter the most. The invitation here is to be empowered by that realisation, not intimidated by it. Whatever you do, don’t ignore it and think you can hide behind results or a dazzling team.

2. Keep it simple

Have you walked into a meeting room and the previous meeting’s scribblings are still on the whiteboard? How often can you decipher their meaning? The chances are, that meeting’s conversation was anything but simple. When it comes to a CEO describing her company’s activity, it should always be simple and succinct. I’ve sat through a 15 minute rendition, plus flipchart hieroglyphics, that – whilst compelling – took me time and a lot of questions to discover what the company actually did. Complication is not big and it’s not clever. Buyers particularly must be clear as to what they’re buying. “We do X, which means Y and will give you Z.” Make it simple and they’ll love you for it.

3. Keep communicating

I had a head of marketing who constantly, relentlessly assured me that my company liked hearing from me, their CEO. I had to hear it many times because it’s easy, as CEO to think that you’re starting to bore people with the same repeated message. Don’t worry. Just keep saying it until they tell you to stop. Repetition of vision and direction is reassuring, directive and clarifying. A lighthouse doesn’t just shine once.

There’s a hunger for people to connect to the mission and vision, culture and values. As Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, said at our CEO summit in Silicon Valley last year, “Repeat it over and over and over. When you’re sick of hearing yourself say it, that’s when they’re beginning to hear you.” Jeff holds a video ‘townhall’ meeting with his entire global staff every other week. Being seen and heard is central to your role as CEO. Being coy and modest is it’s own kind of arrogance: actually it’s not about you, it’s about the company which you personify. To your team and your customers you are the company’s voice – so use it.

4. One idea

Your big idea: move slower and execute the hell out of it. Many CEOs think that, because they’ve thought something through, it’s done. No it isn’t. The idea, the thinking, is just the beginning. You’re not finished. There’s always more to do. Almost always. Identify the single pin in the bowling alley you’re aiming for. If you aim for all ten it won’t go so well. The entrepreneurial mindset, as I’ve said before, is restless. Just be aware of that your enthusiasm doesn’t spill over into impatience.

5. Focus and Clarity

It’s your job, as CEO, to make it clear to every single employee what their role is to make this company a great company. I see a number of businesses where the mission is not clear, nor are individuals’ conceptions of their part in achieving that mission. We all know the J.F. Kennedy / NASA anecdote. (In case you haven’t heard it, JFK asked a cleaner at NASA what his role was: “to put men on the moon, sir”). This old story does contain this ever-fresh truth: that every single one of your employees should be clear and focused on the company’s purpose and their own specific contribution to achieving it. Execution down to the employee level is easy to achieve. People just need to know their role and if they don’t, you as CEO are responsible for doing something about it.

5 pitfalls, 5 opportunities

These 5 pitfalls are as much about mindset as practice. Being CEO of a tech company (or any company for that matter) is a privileged opportunity to positively affect many people’s lives. Living the full potential of the role within a truly great company is not only an exciting personal journey, it’s a corporate necessity.

Read part 1 here.

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