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What's different about being a chief executive?

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The challenges of the chief executive role.

Most chief executives will tell you that the job is entirely different than they expected – and quite unlike any previous role they have had.

Some of the differences are real positives: the breadth and scope of the job; the opportunity to get involved in so many different issues; being at the hub of things; working with a wide range of people; getting to do things your way (to a degree); and having a lot of fun.

Other differences are more challenging. It can help to be aware of them before you take up a chief executive post, because even if they are not ‘problems’, they can take people by surprise and they do need to be managed.

From my own experience and from talking to other chief execs, the issues that most identify are:

  • how you are seen by other people
  • isolation
  • the focus of the job.

How the chief executive is seen by other people

Most of the time, we expect people to respond to us as individuals – as 'us'. In practice, we often relate to people on the basis of their role: doctor, teacher, receptionist etc. We make assumptions and have expectations of each of those roles and we behave accordingly.

This is especially true as chief executive. People will frequently relate to your role not to you. This is apparent in a number of ways.

  • All your relationships – at least within the organisation – will have a degree of formality about them. For the staff, they cannot ever entirely ignore the fact that you are their boss. For volunteers, including the trustees, you are always first and foremost ‘the chief exec’.
  • Sometimes people will say things or behave in a way that seems to you to bear no relation to you, what you’ve said or what you’ve done. And you’ll be right. Their actions are determined by how they perceive the role of chief exec and what they believe chief executives are about.
  • Things you say and do will often be given much greater significance than you yourself give them. For example, you may find things you’ve said, often quite casually, treated as an instruction. One remark I made, thinking out loud with some fundraisers, came back to me as "George wants us to..." Sometimes people will see meanings in what you do or say which would never have occurred to you and you will find yourself dealing with reactions to things you never intended.

These behaviours are unavoidable - you can’t change what’s in people’s heads. So you have to stick with your own agenda: be consistent and communicate your intentions and expectations endlessly.


Most people in an organisation have a peer group of some sort – people with whom they can bounce ideas around, share uncertainties and doubts, and relax as equals.

That is not available to the chief executive. Because you are always the chief executive and because everything you say causes ripples, you have to exercise great care. Some things you just have to keep to yourself, at least within the organisation.

Nonetheless, like everyone else, chief executives have uncertainties and worries and things they don’t know. They are kept awake by work worries at least as much as everyone else.  So they have to find other sources of support and advice, frequently outside the organisation, through peers, experts and mentors.

Some chief executives try to escape the isolation of the role by being ‘mates’ with their senior team. While there is no need to isolate yourself behind a glass wall – and every reason not to – too much chumminess reduces the ability to see objectively and to make the tough, independent decisions that all chief execs have to make from time to time.

The focus of the job

No previous job prepares you for the breadth of what the chief exec has to cover. It’s part of the fun but it also means that sometimes you have to pedal very hard to get on top of some crucial area of which you have had little or no experience. Again, having people to turn to outside the organisation can be a vital resource.

That same breadth means you also have to resist the temptation to get too involved in operational activities. Doing so would mean you are doing other people’s jobs and, more importantly,  make it more difficult to retain an overview of everything that is going on.

The focus is also different in another way: the chief executive is always looking forward towards the goals and challenges facing the organisation. Most other roles are focused on the present or a much nearer future – even senior managers usually work within a shorter time frame most of the time.

The difference in timeframe creates a communication challenge.  Your colleagues need to know you are aware of and understand their situations, and you need to tune your communications to their needs. This means you are continually switching between your focus – the longer term future – and theirs. In fact, that is your job: to let them see how their work fits into the bigger picture.


Some people thrive as chief executives. For them these challenges are just that: challenges. For others it makes the price of the job too high. It’s worth thinking about them before you go into the job, at least to consider how you will manage them and even how you might use them to advantage in achieving your aims.


Page last edited Jul 05, 2017

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