CEOs are known for their confidence. It is, after all, one of the reasons they’ve made it to the top. And yet, that confidence sometimes flags, as we at leadership advisory firm Egon Zehnder learned from a survey of 402 CEOs from 11 countries—executives who together run companies with $2.6 trillion in sales.
Participating anonymously, CEOs told us that while they did feel ready for the strategic and business aspects of their roles, they felt much less prepared for the the personal and interpersonal components of leadership, which are just as critical to success.
Here are some of the most surprising findings:
- 68% acknowledged that, in hindsight, they weren’t fully prepared to take on the CEO role.
- 50% said driving culture change was more difficult than they’d anticipated.
- 48% said that finding time for themselves and for self-reflection was harder than expected.
- 47% said that developing their senior leadership team was surprisingly challenging.
Remarked one: “When you become the final decisionmaker, everything changes. It’s hard to train on this.”
This signals that something is missing in internal hiring and development processes, and in board management of CEOs. Indeed, among CEOs who’d risen in the ranks through their firms, only 28% told us they’d been adequately prepared for the top job, and among all respondents, only 38% said they turned to their board chairman for honest feedback, while only 28% sought counsel from non-chairmen directors.
How should organizations address these CEO development gaps? We suggest three immediate actions:
- Underscore in succession planning, executive training programs, and elsewhere that success comes from adopting a mindset of constant personal growth. Particularly in this environment of rapid change, CEOs should understand that they must embrace curiosity, learning, and adaptability.
- Boards should work with CEOs before, during, and especially after they have been selected. Since CEOs aren’t asking their company directors for help and might even be afraid to do so, boards must be more proactive about CEO management — moving beyond selection to provide real feedback and serve as a trusted long-term source of guidance.
- Better integrate both internal and external hires. One surprising finding of our survey was that internally selected CEOs expressed more concerns than externally selected ones about their ability to adjust to the new role and build a group of supporters. Perhaps because they have the added complexity of leading their former peers, the internal CEOs need extra help from both insiders and outsiders when making this transition.
The survey results, we believe, are a call to action. If unaddressed, the implications go far beyond the personal legacies of these CEOs and will affect the performance of their companies. Stakeholders and shareholders alike should listen closely to what CEOs are saying—and help them become the leaders they want to be.