The overarching topic of the interviews that I conducted this year is “The Keys to Leadership in 2017”. I ask each person that I interview the same questions. However, answers vary widely based on experience. When I read back the transcript of the interview, a theme emerges and that is what inspires the subject for the article.
When I met Christy Shaffer, Ph.D., General Partner at Hatteras Venture Partners her insights on becoming a CEO for the first time surfaced. It is said that the best advice a newly minted CEO can garner is from someone who has already traveled that road and Shaffer knows from first-hand experience what that journey entails. Following her career as a clinical scientist and Associate Director of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Burroughs Wellcome, in 1995, she joined Inspire Pharmaceuticals. She was the first full-time employee of the company and, three years later, became the CEO. When Inspire was acquired by Merck in 2011 the company had 250 employees and over $100M in revenue. Under her leadership, Inspire was named both the “Best Place to Work for Scientists” by the Scientist magazine and the “Best Place to Work in North Carolina”.
“I have really only had three jobs in my career, starting at Burroughs Wellcome, Inspire, and now Hatteras. What these jobs have in common is helping to build companies that are trying to make a significant impact in the world (i.e., finding a new treatment or a cure for a disease) and working with people I respect.”
When asked about the advice she would give someone stepping into a leadership position for the first time, Shaffer replied that she is actually often in that position because she works with early stage startup companies. “I would say that 8 times out of 10 they are first-time CEOs. They may have been a CSO (Chief Scientific Officer), they may have been on a management team, but have never been a CEO of a company. That is hugely different.”
“First-time CEOs don’t know the ropes. You can have a lot of self-doubt. Am I doing the right thing? I have never done this before. I don’t know how to take a company public. I don’t know how to do my first corporate deal. I don’t know how to build a sales force. I don’t know how to do anything!” As long as these doubts don’t overwhelm or derail the person, continuous learning on and off the job can help develop leadership effectiveness. She says she is referred to as the “kindergarten teacher” because she is responsible for guiding their professional, interpersonal, and intellectual growth. “I end up coaching them and one of the things that I try to do is make sure that I am available to talk with them when they have a problem.”
Alignment with the vision/mission of the organization
One measure of success for an organization is being able to convert the vision/mission of the organization into workable operational strategies. Newly minted CEOs must be able to inspire and engage their employees to follow the vision and “make the match and not the misalignment”.
“First of all, it is important to talk about what are the core values. Having that core value system that is really reflected in the everyday organization as opposed to just having it on a wall somewhere. That is meaningless and doesn’t work. All you need to do is reinforce the core values every time you have a staff meeting or an event, whether it is a success or a failure, those core values still come in to play. ”
There is no one size fits all when it comes to designing a vision for a company. Organizations have been equally successful with visions focused on improving cost, growth, market share, sales, or even external constraints. What matters is that the organization finds the right vision for itself and then communicates and pursues it in a way that is concrete, relevant, and meaningful to the individual employees. (Thierry Nautin, The Aligned Organization, 2014)
Leading through teams
Executives gain followership and commitment from their teams when they realize “they are all in it together, not against one another. That makes a big difference if you are all aligned. You see it as we are all going to row together or it is not going to work. I think it comes back to whether the team shares the same core values. It doesn’t work if you have even one person on your core team who doesn’t share the vision or the core values that the rest of the team does because that will make it really toxic, unfortunately.”
“Leaders have to be really good problem solvers, and have to have people around them who can also solve problems. That occurs through dialogue, different perspectives and points of view. I think having people round the table with all kinds of experiences is really important.”
New CEOs quickly learn the limits of their own influence and must understand the necessity of leading through others. They must also be able to assess where they can have maximum impact and turn to others whose skills complement their own. In a survey of over 800 senior executives performed by EY, an overwhelming majority responded that their organization’s ability to develop and manage teams is essential for their future competitiveness and the best way to address increasingly complex problems.
Shaffer indicated that you need to rely on the team to get you where you want to go. “You can’t do everything. You have to figure out how to influence and motivate your employees so in your absence they will make the same or better decisions than you would have. In addition, it is important to show kindness and compassion. Be genuine, true to yourself, and then display that to others.”
Mentorship, or Leadership Training
CEOs readily admit that it can be “lonely at the top”. This is true because the ultimate responsibility for the success of the organization rests with them. Shaffer recommends identifying a select group of trusted advisors and confidants with whom the CEO can seek advice, admit their fears, and discuss situations in an open and candid manner.
“I encourage leaders to find relevant mentors. At some point you need to talk to somebody who has been through it. Someone who you can ask questions of and who can offer their opinion of the situation.” Shaffer tells first-time CEOs that they need to have a peer that they can talk openly and freely with who is not associated with the company or the Board; “maybe another first-time CEO or even someone who has been a CEO for a long time” and also someone who is either a level above or comes from a different industry or sector who can provide a broader perspective.
“I also highly recommend leadership training of some kind. A lot of small companies think that they don’t have the time and it is too expensive.” The benefits outweigh the cost.
When Shaffer was starting on her own rise to the top the Chairman of the Board said to her “Whatever you worry about in terms of whether you can do this job as a first-time CEO, we know you can do it and we have your back.” That left a lasting impression on her because it was such a profound, yet simple statement. That encouragement made all the difference.