To paraphrase a quote by investor and author Ben Horowitz, nothing prepares you for running a company, except actually running a company.
I certainly found that to be true when I became CEO of Intuit. No one was more surprised than I was to get the job. I loved the prior job and boss I had at the time, and becoming the CEO was not something I had explicitly aspired to achieve. When my predecessor stepped down and the board made the offer, I was both surprised and humbled, but quickly realized that it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
While it’s true that nothing really prepares you for running an organization, the hard-won lessons from your own previous experiences, combined with the wisdom from others who have come before you, can shed some light on what lies ahead. With that in mind, here are three things I needed to learn and do differently when becoming a CEO that were different from my previous roles. My hope is that is some small way, my experiences (and my mistakes) may be helpful if you are about to assume, or if you aspire to take on a similar role someday.
Planning for the Future:
One major difference between running a product team or business unit and leading an company or major organization is the time horizon you must consider. When leading business units, I was expected to develop 3 to 5 year plans, supported by an annual operating plan or budget. When I became CEO, I quickly learned that my responsibility shifted to ensuring the company was “built to last”, with time horizons that were much more future-oriented, supported by scenario planning and a range of hypothesis-driven strategies designed to capitalize on emerging trends and opportunities.
The practicality of this lesson became clear to me early in my tenure as CEO through an exercise I experienced at a leadership conference. The exercise first required each of us to reflect on a decision or a strategy we now wish our predecessors had executed differently 10 years earlier, that would have left us in a better position today as a company. Everyone had a field day with this portion of the exercise, quickly identifying the “would have, could have, and should haves.” Oh, the benefit of hindsight is a magnificent thing!
It was the second part of the exercise that brought the lesson home. We were then asked to fast-forward 10 years and think about what our successors might wishwe had done differently today to make the company stronger and their lives easier 10 years from now. That shifted my perspective and made me realize that as CEO, things were now different. Beyond the short-term goals of delivering business results, and even the 3-5 year plans, came the responsibility to consider the longer-term implications of everything I was doing today. The effect it would have on the culture, on our geographic footprint, on our technology and product foundation, on our brand and our customer loyalty. Make no mistake, elements of these considerations should be present in decisions at every level in the organization, but none more tangible or consequential than I’ve experienced as CEO.
Operating at the Right Altitude:
A second major adjustment I needed to make when becoming CEO was getting used to the change in altitude. I grew up in operating roles, and always loved the immediacy and the intensity of dynamic shifts and real-time adjustments. You’re “in the field,” making real-time decisions that have immediate impact on business results.
As much as I loved being close to the front line action, I learned as a CEO that my new role required me to make long-term decisions that impacted business results over long periods of time and required me to view the entire landscape from a 30,000-foot view.
I often remarked that the difference between operational roles and the role of CEO is akin to the difference between a battlefield general and a Pentagon General.
In the interest of complete transparency, I didn’t grasp this concept initially, and in my first year as CEO I found myself straying into decisions and offering recommendations that were more appropriate for the leaders closer to the action. It was disempowering to the local leaders, and not where I could and should have been adding value. It took me time to adjust, but I came to realize that my new job was to ask the right questions that empowered our leaders to move forward with greater clarity about the “outcome” we sought. Said more succinctly, be clear about the “what” and delegate “the how”.
Taking on the Psychological Responsibility:
The third major adjustment, and perhaps most surprising, was a realization that nothing in business could have prepared me for. The closest experience I’ve had in this regard was the day I became a father. As CEO, I had underestimated the depth of psychological responsibility you feel for every human being that is a part of the company or organization, including the customers who buy your products.
Our longtime chairman of the board at Intuit, Bill Campbell, best expressed this to me. As CEO, he once told me, “you’re going to tuck 8,000 employees into bed with you each and every night, and if you’re doing your job correctly, you’re going to think about how each and every one of them is feeling.” Even though I have always felt accountable to my teams, and have worked hard to be a servant leader throughout my career, the depth of the feeling as a CEO was exponentially more than I had anticipated. My job is to serve our 8,000 employees, our millions of customers and partners, and our shareholders. I work for them.
Being able to serve as a CEO is a wonderful opportunity for anyone, but it doesn’t come with instructions. Learning from the experiences of others, in addition to our own hard-won experiences makes it an energizing experience each and every day. It has been a vertical learning curve, and has indeed been the most humbling and rewarding experience of my professional career!
About Brad Smith
President and CEO of Intuit Brad has a proven track record of increasing shareholder value through developing strategic plans, building high performing organizations and enhancing operational efficiency in both turn-around and high-growth situations He was awarded the 'Small Business Influencer Champion' by Small Business Trends and Small Biz Technology, he won the' Corporate Social Innovation & Partnership Award' (Silicon Valley Chapter) from the American Red Cross and was named one of the Top 100 Most Influential People (Accounting Profession) by Accounting Today in 2012