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How to Succeed as a CEO When You've Never Been a CEO

If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you're not sure you can do it, say yes - then learn how to do it later. - Richard Branson

In January of 2009, I was hired as the President & CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Mountain View. The main role of a Chamber of Commerce is to promote local businesses, support the community and advocate on behalf of its members. It is a very visible position in the community and with it comes a lot of responsibilities. For me, it was an amazing opportunity for which I had no prior experience. Previously, I had worked in high-tech for nearly 15 years in various sales roles, including management. Leading the Chamber was a career change for me. At first I felt apprehensive, nervous and vulnerable. Although, I had experience in sales, managing people, budgets, and organizing groups, it was never at the executive level. And certainly, not during a time when the organization I was about to lead was in a downward spiral, and the country’s economic storms were a major headwind for recovery. Despite my feelings of uncertainty and lack of experience, I was undaunted in my desire to accept the President & CEO position. As I prepare to embark on my next challenge, these are things that helped me succeed as a first time CEO.

  1. Assess Before Making Changes. Barring any serious issues, when you first take over an organization you might be inclined to quickly make changes to “make your mark.” I recommend that you first understand the organization’s culture, nuisances, needs, strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Create a Vision and Strategy. Once you understand the three “Knows”, create a new vision and strategy and get buy-in from key stakeholders: the board, staff, key customers and supporters. - Know your organization’s core competencies. - Know your customer’s current and anticipated needs, wants and desires. - Know who your potential partners are.
  3. Lead From the Heart. Sadly, based on your CEO title people will treat you with more respect. However, long-term respect is built through trust, credibility and how you treat everyone. What does your heart say when you are interacting with others? Do you treat the high school kid who walked into your office asking for help the same as your largest customer? Are you making a tough decision? Some call it intuition. Others call it gut-check. Have the courage to make the tough decisions, and the sensitivity to listen to the views of others.
  4. Support Your Staff’s Growth. It is true that your staff is your biggest asset. They know your customer. They support the organization. They support you. Provide your staff with the tools, encouragement and opportunities to grow. Don’t fear losing a great employee. Fear the employee who is unhappy and remains.
  5. Honor the Past. Disrupt the Present. Embrace the future - Disruption is a big buzzword in Silicon Valley. Certainly, many companies are creating amazing technologies and making major advancements that are leading our country out of our worst recession. But, let’s not forget that success isn’t a solitary accomplishment. We need to acknowledge the organizations and individuals that have paved the way for our advancements. Yet, we must always look to improve and be unafraid to change.
  6. Be Innovative, but Focus on the Goal. Yes, it is important to change. But don’t change just for the sake of changing. You are running a business or an organization and you are accountable to your stakeholders.
  7. Self-Awareness. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What inspires you? What makes you happy? What upsets you? The better you know yourself, the more predictable and emotionally stable you will be.
  8. Listen More than You Talk. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. It’s incredible the insight you gain when you listen more. Also, others will feel heard.
  9. Be Genuine & Engaged. When you are speaking to others, are you sincerely conveying a message that you are truly present in the conversation? Our body language says a lot about ourselves and conveys a message of engagement in the conversation.
  10. Be Open Minded. Chambers of Commerce were started in our country over 200 years ago. As my friend and author, Chris Mead, states in his book The Magicians of Main Street, Chambers of Commerce have played key roles in shaping our country’s economic landscape. Longevity can lead to accepting the status quo. Be open to new opportunities and viewpoints.

Assuming the role of CEO can be a daunting, uncomfortable and scary undertaking. Some of us voluntarily assume the role. Others assume the role out of necessity. Regardless of the reason, it is a role with many personal rewards and opportunities to make a tremendous positive impact. Thanks to the support of my board of directors and staff, the Chamber of Commerce Mountain View is highly respected in the industry and regarded as the most dynamic, fun and well-run Chamber of Commerce. Today, I view my role not as the President & Chief Executive Officer, but rather as the Chief Empowerment Officer because when others feel empowered, they will perform at their peak, which in turn will result in your organization performing at its peak.

Oscar is Founder & Chief Empowerment Officer of Aspira, a community relations, economic development, and training firm that empowers, engages and educates clients.
Created By
Oscar Garcia
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