At C-Level #1: Reflections of a First-Time CEO

At C-Level #1 is the beginning of an eight-part blog series following a first time CEO’s educational journey in a very challenging business environment, exploring global concepts in leadership theory and practice. 

At the end of each blog are reflection questions for readers to consider as they navigate their own leadership journey.

This post by Mike Sayre, Executive Coach — experienced software, e-commerce and electronics manufacturing services CEO, COO, CFO, CIO and Board Director — is based on his first-hand experiences as a first-time CEO. Its intent is to provide additional insight or ideas to those in, close to, aspiring to, or trying to understand the top leadership role in any organization. 

I had been the CFO of an electronics manufacturing services company for about five years, reporting directly to the founder and CEO. 

Over that time, I was able to:

  • lead a significant financial turnaround, 
  • lead in greatly improving the financial operations and reporting of the company, 
  • learn everything I could about the business and the people in it, 
  • become the founder’s closest advisor in the business, and 
  • gained the total trust and confidence of both the founder and the board.  

In an unexpected turn of events, the founder of the company, much more experienced and happier leading technology development for the business, asked me to take over as CEO of the company while he took on the role of Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

The founder was the third CEO I had worked closely with in my career, and, through observation, I thought I knew what the CEO’s job was all about…strategy and planning, relationships with large customers and suppliers and the board, driving for higher sales and lower costs, rallying the troops around the company’s goals and objectives, etc. I also loved the company, its people, capabilities, and prospects for the future. So, I accepted the job.

The first couple of days were fairly calm, but over the ensuing weeks the problems and questions got more complicated and began coming at an accelerated pace:

  • We are losing money on a couple of new very large accounts representing most of our sales growth. What do we do?
  • Our largest customer, upset with late deliveries, is requiring a daily meeting in which he verbally abuses our best customer service representative, and she is talking about leaving. How should we handle this?
  • Our latest acquisition is not well integrated and is bleeding money. Why is this happening?
  • Our competitors all have locations in Europe and Asia and some of our largest customers will no longer let us bid on new work because we only have one location in the U.S. As a relatively small company, how can we develop international capabilities?

However, the most pressing questions came to me from the vice president of sales who was trying to figure out exactly what he was trying to sell!

  • What are we trying to do here? What is our mission? What do we want to be when we grow up?
  • Who is our target market, and what is our value to them?
  • What are our core values?  
  • What are our goals and priorities?
  • How do we make all these decisions that we’ve never made before, let alone execute on them?

At this point, I realized what the company had been missing, why being the CEO had been so frustrating for the founder, what being the CEO was really about, and where I needed significant development fast…leadership and focus.

Gene Early wrote an executive summary of Jim Collins’ best-selling book Good to Great. I review that executive summary from time to time to help me keep focus on what it can take to “break through” from being a “good” company to becoming a “great” one. “Understanding that drives action” is one way to describe it. Good to Great companies worked to understand at a deep level what made their company work, and by continually looking for new answers to the question, they developed the momentum to break through to greatness. Their leaders understood these seven basic tenets that Collins put forth in the book:

  1. Success is not about the leader as a person, but about the success of the company;
  2. The right people in the right seats on the bus make all the difference;
  3. Find the truth and act on it by facing the brutal facts of reality while maintaining an unwavering faith that you will succeed;
  4. Tapping passion, extraordinary competence, and the key economic driver builds progressive momentum;
  5. Stay focused on the essentials and stop the distractions, and cultivate that discipline; 
  6. Technology is best used to accelerate momentum, not create it; and
  7. Greatness comes from sustained commitment to disciplined people, disciplined thinking, and disciplined action that creates breakthrough momentum.

Collins placed the leaders who moved companies from good to great in the top level of his developmental hierarchy and called them “Level 5” leaders. He characterized them as having “a unique combination of humility and fierce resolve.” More recently, in the Integral Leadership Maturity Framework, this is called a “Strategist” or “Synergist” level leader.

Reflection questions:

  • As you assess your current situation, on a scale of 1–5 with 1 being the lowest rating and 5 being the highest, how would you score yourself on the seven tenets above? For example, using the first tenet, how would you rate yourself on putting your company’s success before your own? Be honest with yourself!
  • How can you use your scores on the seven tenets to shape your leadership development plan? 

If you scored below a three on any of the factors, or scored an average below four, I can help you develop in these areas and elevate your leadership capabilities. Please contact me at to request more information.

In At C-Level #2: Too Much Noise! I’ll talk about what I did to get started and how I decided—after much inner turmoil—to approach the new and very exciting challenges before me!

Mike Sayre has successfully piloted businesses through difficult times of crisis for over 20 years – as a CEO, President & COO, CFO, and/or Board Director. He is currently an independent executive leadership consultant working through Civilis Consulting and the Innovative Leadership Institute, trusted partners inspiring and enabling perpetual innovation, evolution, and growth in leaders and their businesses.

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