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4 lessons from my first 9 months as CEO
In this slightly up close and personal post, I outline 4 things I’ve learned with a major work and life change. This post is aimed to walk through a few main points of reflection or possible recommendations when the time comes for anyone to take on a new and challenging opportunity.
Now, this is based on my own experience 9 months in as the CEO of SlashData. It’s a few things I recommend someone to consider when changing roles, maybe you are becoming a first-time manager, taking on a larger team, and/or becoming a parent.
If you prefer the executive summary, the gist is: Whatever change you may be planning to make in your personal life and career, it’s my personal experience that you should start preparing early, but be ready for surprises along the way. You shouldn’t start a new role on day one – think about what you can do ahead of time to make the transition smoother. Especially in leadership roles, you might have become the manager, good for you! But, on the flip side, everyone has to have you as a manager now. For more context, keep reading. 🙂
#1 Plan everything but be ready for surprises.
Some sayings are cliche for a reason. You know what they say, how life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans? Well, I felt the irony of that one when I found out I was pregnant 1 week after taking over as CEO. Travelling to my first board meeting, sick as a dog and not able to say anything because it was too early and the doctor’s advice is to keep it between you and your partner for a while. Obviously I want a family, so this was great, but we have to admit, the timing is also funny. I mean, I didn’t even get a headstart before the nausea sunk in.
That said, having seen other women have children and come back from pregnancy leave and continue to grow in their roles successfully, gave me a lot of encouragement. I look up to the women both at SlashData and not, that have done this before me, especially before the era of remote working having to wear business suits and pumps. I can only imagine what it would have been like to be up at 7am and get panty hose on with the belly and swollen feet. Even in the world of remote working though, having a family and working full-time is really an accomplishment for any working parent. Fingers crossed I do it well.
#2. Don’t wait till day one.
I was very lucky to have a founder that was open to me “soft-launching” the role 3 months early. Taking over a leadership role should always have some overlap or shadowing. Since I was already part of the Leadership Team I was very attuned to the ins and outs, but the relationship dynamic changed with me and my colleagues. If you are moving into a new management role, you need to understand and comprehend, there is a relationship shift between you and everyone you will be working with. I hope you expect this before you take the role. Actually let me say things a bit differently. If you really want to be liked by everyone you work with, don’t take the job, it’s going to be very disappointing. Not everyone will be happy you have been promoted and that’s ok. If you are lucky someone will be excited, but people need time to adjust and you will need to give it to them.
Changes like this need to happen in steps. If you can, advocate to allow some time to shadow, be present in your predecessor’s 1-2-1s with your future reports and in cross team meetings. Be aware of what’s being discussed within the leadership team (or the team you will be taking on) and how things are being addressed. Decide what you care about keeping within the agenda and if you might change something, prepare your thoughts as early as possible. Once you take over, have open discussions with your direct reports on what they also think about what they would like to keep, change, or what’s missing for them.
On the one hand, people needed time to adjust, while others had nearly immediate expectations. Be aware, people will not be as open with you once they know you will be the new boss. They won’t tell you directly things you might have discussed openly just a few days earlier. This was something I didn’t consider ahead of time, from the day colleagues were notified, some saw me in a different light. There was an immediate expectation that I would be a different person, take a different approach as to how I communicate, even if they had known me for years. They weren’t as candid any more, they may have been more protective of their opinions, which also meant I needed now to be more careful how I spoke about the future of the company or a new project. Was I speaking hypothetically or sharing a plan that they should expect and take action on? Things change when you take over. It may take some time for you to adjust to this new reality. I took the honest approach, which I recommend. Open communication to explain that the adjustment is on both sides, you also need time to adjust to the new expectations from your new direct reports. Ask for that time from those that may have immediate expectations from you. You probably won’t fit their expectations anyway, your leadership style will be different from your predecessor and the leadership style of others on your team. Ask for that time to find your bearings.
#3. Let your team tell you what to do
Even more importantly for me before I took over, was taking over a strategic workshop we run a couple times a year. This would be a type of all hands meeting for the Leadership team. If you can, take this over early and design it to fit what you need it to achieve.
I took over the last one in Q4 of the previous year.
Even though I hadn’t officially started, I was able to re-design the structure of the meeting to fit what we needed for everyone to feel aligned. They needed not just to be aware of where we are going in my first year as CEO, they needed to own the direction. You’ve taken over, but everything is not about you or what you think should happen right now. Create the opportunity and the safe space for your new team to build your next steps together. You should have an opinion, but let them bring up the issues, and jointly decide on a plan to address them. Let them suggest what your priorities are, chances are you will agree with them too.
Was it perfect? No of course not, I’m a newbie afterall. But, the time was extremely well spent. I planned a workshop that would set the pace for the next year. Everyone gave feedback for improvement, but also said they felt we were more aligned than ever and they knew what to expect in the next year. What everyone seemed to feel at the end of it was above all clarity about what’s next. For a new CEO, I couldn’t ask for more than that. Doing this BEFORE I took over, was 100% the right move. We all brought up the issues, we collaboratively came up with the plan with actions on what to do about them for the next year. We are still executing things we decided in that meeting, 9 months later.
#4 Life happens to everyone, even you
Now it’s possible you may be reading this while I’m off on my maternity leave. Yes, I took the job and 9 months in, I’m taking some time to have a baby. I plan to be in touch and have created a schedule for my leave to allow for time off and check-ins with the team, but I will be 100% off for some time and I know the leadership team has things covered in my absence. After that, we’ve planned a schedule to manage all the major events of Q4 and annual strategic planning to allow me to be on a half time schedule. That said, this is not a model I am advocating for others. This is simply what I felt would work for me at this moment. I have the help and support from my partner and family to allow me to have a flexi-schedule. All parents should have the opportunity and the right to take as much leave as they need while building their families.
It’s up to us to define what leadership and mother-hood looks like. As a first-time mother, and CEO I know I won’t have it all figured out the first time round, but looking at all the women that have done it before me and watching everyone at SlashData take their place in moving the company forward, it gives me the comfort and confidence that I can take the time I need. I always thought I would step back from career progression when I had a family, as it turns out I’m pressing the gas pedal instead.