When I started my company, I became CEO by default. I had no idea what a CEO really did, but I was the one in charge, so the title fell to me. Needless to say, I wasn’t performing my duties well.
Since then, I’ve learned that being the CEO doesn’t just mean signing checks and giving the final stamp of approval on projects. Your day-to-day tasks will vary depending on your field, but if you want to learn how to be a great leader at a young age, do what any experienced CEO does.
1. Never Stop Improving
This is especially important for young leaders, but it will remain relevant the rest of your career. Here are some ways to ensure that you will continuously improve:
- Be a sponge. Remain open to new ideas and feedback — even if it’s negative. Make fewer statements, and ask lots of questions instead. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’re going to make mistakes, but the key is to avoid making them twice.
- Build a solid network of support. Be hyperaware of your strengths and weaknesses. Spend time maximizing your strengths, and fill the void left by your weaknesses through new hires, contractors, mentors, or advisors.
- Push yourself to learn. Attend conferences, take online courses, set up an accountability group, and read new books. You may think you know your industry inside and out, but the answers to a groundbreaking change or new market potential can be found in learning something new.
- Start writing. As a young CEO, you have tons of ideas and reflections swirling around in your head, and it wears on you to keep them all bottled up. Writing and sharing will help you work through thoughts and solicit great feedback.
Communication is where most CEOs fail. I’m not talking about giving speeches or wowing the board of directors with a terrific presentation. That type of communication is great, but it’s not critical.
Honest, open, clear communication with employees, co-founders, partners, clients, vendors, and even your competition will make or break you. Those who follow these criteria to communicate easily and often will stand out from the crowd:
- Set clear expectations with employees, clients, and customers. Do this through several mediums so there’s no question that everyone understands what you expect.
- Conduct one-on-ones with your team. Don’t just do this in the beginning; make it a continuous practice. Pull employees aside, sit down, and talk for 10 minutes. Ask what challenges and hurdles they face, how you can help, and what suggestions they have for improving the company.
- Don’t assume directions were clearly understood. And don’t assume that someone feels the same way as you. Go above and beyond to ensure that everyone is on the same page, even when people don’t speak up.
3. Set a Good Example
Managers and bosses often have a vision of how they want their employees to work and act, but they fail to demonstrate those expectations. Leading by example applies to everything from answering the phone to dealing with angry clients or a failing product. If you don’t follow your own rules, employees will be confused. Here are some tips for making it work:
- Don’t overindulge in your privileges. Sure, you could delegate the hardest projects, but it’s better to demonstrate the work ethic you expect to see from your employees.
- Give positive feedback. When someone successfully models your example, let him or her know. It’s easy to say, “Nice work” or “Thanks for taking that extra step.” Your voice is the loudest in your company, and your encouragement will go a long way.
- Communicate when you set a bad example. You will make mistakes that you don’t want copied, so call yourself out and make it clear that your actions were not up to par. The same goes for employees, but speak to them privately. Don’t call them out in front of the team and humiliate them.
4. Optimize Your Resources
CEOs know that there’s always more that can be done. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your success, but you can’t rest on your laurels, either. When things are running smoothly, don’t ignore your business — improve it.
- Know your key metrics. Work with an accountant or financial advisor to make sure you really understand your key metrics. Think of them as your company’s vital signs, and always watch them.
- Understand what makes your business tick. Speak with your advisors and other leaders to determine where you can make changes and what is untouchable.
- Never stop asking, “How can we do better?” Ask your team, your mentors, your customers, and anyone else your organization interacts with. Never assume that what you are currently doing is as good as it can be.
Any ambitious person with an idea for a business can be a CEO, but a title on a business card doesn’t make you a leader. It’s what you do every day and how you lead your team that determines whether you deserve to be CEO. Take a step back, evaluate yourself, and work to improve your business and become a better role model for your employees.
John T. Meyer is the co-founder and CEO of Lemonly, a visual marketing firm that specializes in infographics and data visualization. Always sweet, never sour, its mission is to create understanding through visuals. Connect with John on Twitter and Google+.
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