From Specialist to Generalist: Becoming CEO

It’s only one rung up the ladder, but it’s a large one. You can see it, but you can’t completely understand it until you get there. 

Becoming a CEO is the culmination of hard work; a healthy, but in-check, ego; some luck; and much skill. But will that skill help you or hold you back?

I’m talking, by the way, about CEO in an organization beyond the start-up phase, one with many employees and details to manage. Founders and those running companies with fewer than 20 employees also have many challenges, but they’re different in scope and depth. Often more doing than influencing. More sprinter than marathoner. 

When under stress, we all tend to fall back on what we were trained to do, where we are experienced. CEOs are usually under stress from day one. However, once you climb up the ladder, it’s no longer about what you can accomplish but what you can accomplish with your team. You’re no longer an individual soldier or Marine in a firefight—you’re a general with ground troops, artillery, aircraft, and perhaps a few ships to boot. Grabbing your rifle and charging up the hill may feel good, but it’s not the way you’ll win the war.

I recently spent a few hours with a talented performer who had the opportunity to take this step, and he was wisely considering how he’d have to perform to succeed. We talked about letting go of using specialized knowledge (e.g., product engineering), talking less and listening more, communicating assertively but carefully (you’re always on stage), facilitating more than dictating, making strategy and culture the two top priorities, managing board relationships, and becoming a more fervent student of leadership. 

Only one rung up on the ladder, but the air is much different! If you’re working your way up the organization, be aware that what got you here won’t get you there! What’s your plan?

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