“I feel like I’ve changed professions,” the new president & CEO of an aging services organization said in our recent meeting. “You definitely have,” I responded. I elaborated by pointing out that she shouldn’t think of herself any longer as essentially a senior executive and expert in aging services; her new job was different in kind, not just in degree, from the various positions she had held on her way up the ladder, including controller of one of the skilled nursing homes, administrator of an assisted living facility, and vice president of administration for the whole nonprofit corporation. “You’ve joined a very exclusive club,” I continued, “made up of the CEOs of other nonprofit and public organizations – and now your peers and most important mentors are other members of the club.”
We went on to talk about the really unique responsibilities of nonprofit and public CEOs that are extremely difficult to learn climbing the organizational ladder – building and maintaining a close and productive working relationship with the board of directors, spearheading strategic change so your organization can thrive and grow in a rapidly changing landscape, and explaining your organization’s values, vision and mission to the wider world and key stakeholders, to name some of the highest stakes CEO responsibilities that are typically terra incognita to new occupants of the chief executive suite.
If you’re what we call a “CEO-aspirant” – an executive who sees herself sitting in the CEO’s chair some day – you can begin to take steps to educate yourself about the unique responsibilities of CEOs even if you can’t learn everything you need to know on the job. For a start, it’s a no-brainer for you to dip into the rapidly expanding literature on CEOship. I don’t mean just management books and articles, but also biography. For example, in a recent blog post, I talk about Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of President Theodore Roosevelt’s use of the “bully pulpit” as a highly effective strategic change tool, in her brilliant new book, The Bully Pulpit. You can also look for mentors to teach you CEO skills, for example by observing them in action and listening to them talk in podcasts and videos. Here are links to two podcasts by highly successful CEOs that you might want to check out: Jeff Finkle, president and CEO of the International Economic Development Council talking about designing the new board of this recently merged association – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iqCyeB6BRk – and Joe Calabrese, Chief Executive officer of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, talking about the highly effective productivity improvement process he put in place at GCRTA – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlXynPUlvU8.