How to make the shift from numbers to people as the new CEO

11 Sep 2019

How to make the shift from numbers to people as the new CEO

In part 2 of our CFO to CEO series, Chania Stempowski, Joint MD of Odgers Berndtson sub-Saharan Africa executive search, explores the softer skills critical to succeed as a CEO.

A key question emerged from our recent research amongst some of the 21% of CEOs at the JSE’s top 140 companies who were former CFOs. How do you manage the shift from the black and white world of numbers to the very grey realm of people?

Changes in leadership style were required. CEOs needed to actively hone certain core people skills to navigate business areas such as culture, teamwork, employee engagement, EQ and engaging with shareholders.

From our CEO interviews, we’ve collated the six most practical pieces of advice we heard.

1. Be interested in people and processes

Gaynor Poretti, Managing Director of National Brands Ltd, says, “Be curious and interested in everything to do with the organisation – people and processes – not only the Rands and cents. Make people feel honoured and respected and heard. Be observant. Take leadership values from your peers.”

2. Listen to your people

Becoming an observer of people – what drives them and the psychology behind behaviour – will help a new CEO develop as a leader. Take the time to listen to what people have to say, their challenges, concerns and aspirations.

3. Seek out unbiased personal feedback

When one such CEO was appointed to his role, he knew he needed to identify his blind spots in order to succeed. He contracted an external third party who provided organisation-wide 360-degree feedback through interviews and an anonymous questionnaire. Once the results were collated, development areas were identified, and a plan was established to address these areas to become the leader the organisation needed.

4. Surround yourself with talented people

Successful leaders develop in-depth knowledge of their own weaknesses and they top-up any gaps with experts. The ability to unlock the wisdom of the team is a very powerful trait in a leader. CEOs need to trust the team around them so that they can unlock the potential of the smart people they employ – in doing so, their business will enjoy optimal results. Once such CEO mentioned that although you may not have the detailed technical knowledge, you need to be able to ask intelligent, sensible questions, to make sure you’re getting the best results.

5. Don’t lead alone – find a mentor or coach

This is one of the most universally cited tips from people in the top job. Once the buck stops with you, it is a very good idea to have a formal coaching relationship. Choosing the right mentor or coach is critical and can assist in addressing blind spots identified or feedback received. Says one of the CEOs we spoke to, “You also need to learn to balance your life and often your network and mentors can show you how they have done this.”

6. Practice succession planning for peace of mind

Ideally, a robust succession plan for the CFO role should be in place in order to develop and train the successor to ensure that when the transition takes place, the new CEO can focus on people rather than finding themselves drawn back to the numbers.  Working with a trusted global executive search partner like Odgers Berndtson sub-Saharan Africa can ensure a strong talent management strategy supported with leadership assessments using the LeaderFit™ methodology.

Further inspiration

For any individual within an organisation who may be transitioning towards a more people-focused role, here is our list of a few TED talks to inspire you: Stanley McChrystal: Listen, Learn Then Lead or Drew Dudley’s everyday leadership. And for your reading list, consider: Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger by Peter Bevelin; Managing Oneself by Peter F. Drucker; and Leadership thoughts: Inspire yourself, inspire others by Gerhard van Rensburg.