Wendy Foster, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay, earned her executive stripes during the high growth days at AOL before transitioning to her next gig as a nonprofit CEO. She's an entrepreneur at heart. As a first-time CEO, Foster is learning how to effectively work with a board while steering her organization along a new growth path. Hired to drive change, Foster is a few years into a five-year transformation plan. With revenues just over $7.4 million in 2013, she is on target.
Here's a little secret that executives like Foster will tell you: If you are driving big organizational transformation or leading a big disruption, the place you start is with the person you see in the mirror. Here's how Foster transformed into the CEO she wanted and needed to be.
Conduct a personal inventory.
The first step in any transformation is not to focus on what you want to change. Instead, spend some time taking stock of the good, the bad, and the ugly. "It's important to know yourself, know your strengths and your weaknesses," says Foster. Spend some time getting to know who you are as a leader in your full complement of skills. And don't worry, as a CEO, your skills won't be as strong as you or your board may want them to be. May as well get over that and focus on your personal growth.
I sit on a board. My job as a board member is to support and coach the CEO in a manner that enables the business she leads to achieve its strategic vision and goals while ensuring governance over the fiduciary responsibilities of the organization. Board members expect a CEO to invest in her personal growth so that she can accelerate change toward organizational goals while ensuring operational excellence and competitive advantage. Being CEO is sometimes a lonely job. That personal inventory is an important tool in your CEO kit. The best way use the personal inventory you create is to celebrate your strengths and be confident in the comfort that you have a lot to bring to the table.
Be competent, not perfect.
I have to admit, I fall victim to wanting to appear perfect, sometimes striving to be the epitome of excellence. Not because I want to impress others, but because I was trained since my school days that being perfect was an expectation. Most high potential women can relate. "This idea of being the best constantly gives a voice to my inner critic," says Foster. I find most female CEOs I know ask themselves on a daily basis what they could have done better. While self-reflection is important to learn and grow, judgment is not.
Here's a secret from the boardroom. Your board members do not expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to be competent. "If you're constantly pushing yourself down, you are coming from a place of weakness," says Foster. Like many great CEOs, Foster is learning to take on every new challenge with a learning mindset. As she leads her organization down a new, unchartered path, she is competent in her ability to achieve the vision she created. When her board challenges her about the short-term implications of her long-term strategy, something a board will frequently do, Foster's competence allows her to respond from a place of strength. That competence gives Foster's board confidence in her leadership and in her vision.
Seek coaches and advocates who have been there, done that.
The best CEOs surround themselves with a close group of advisers who they can turn to for counsel and insight, and use as a sounding board for key decisions. As most CEO positions are filled based on referrals and most business is conducted based on relationships, advisers can also turn into professional advocates as well. Advocates will openly support you and sometimes put their personal reputations on the line while doing so. One of the best ways to find the coaching and advocacy you need as you develop into the CEO you want to be is to start with your board.
Your board is a treasure trove of executives who have been in your shoes in some form or another. Foster has three members of her board who she can turn to for counsel and support. One board member, a former CEO, has been especially critical in helping her navigate the often bumpy road of leading through transformation while being on the line for aggressive short-term quantitative goals. "I can have this really great multidimensional conversation with him. I can work on where we can address a challenge on a strategic issue that I want to bring to the board. I review what I'm thinking; ask for his candid thoughts on my approach. He helps me think about how to manage the board conversation, especially if previous discussions on the topic have gone sideways," says Foster.
Becoming the CEO you want and need to be is a journey. That journey is filled with multiple pit stops that sometimes feel like destinations. Don't be fooled. There is no ultimate destination. You will always be transforming because being an effective CEO means adapting your approach without losing yourself in the process.