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Starting / Business startup

When is a CEO not really a CEO?

The CEO of a company once stood for accomplishment, years of dedication and service. Now, in my opinion, it seems to stand for nothing.

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I clearly remember back in the 1990s when my Father was promoted to director at his work. It felt like such an honour; a true accomplishment not only for him, but for our family. Titles such as CEO or Director felt, to me, like a rise to the top had been achieved and someone had triumphed in their career. They were titles that could only be earned, not self-given or achieved lightly.

Today, when I think of CEOs of that same ilk, names like Alan Joyce, Andrew Mackenzie or Gail Kelly come to mind. These are people who are responsible for thousands of employees, accountable to the media, city analysts, shareholders and the wider community. It might be old-fashioned of me, but the image of someone who is responsible for the entirety of a company is someone I feel is a person worth referring to with “Sir” or “Mrs” before addressing them by name. Which is why, even after years of running my business, I do not feel I’ve come far enough to call myself a CEO.

Yet, I’ve met my share of twenty-something CEOs of start-ups and it’s completely bewildering to me. I find it a bit … odd to see people in their early twenties hold positions of such high significance because, to me, the ‘E’ in CEO always stood for ‘Experience’. And I believe experience comes from years of practice and work, not simply putting a placard on your desk with the title.

I can certainly see there is much to be admired in younger entrepreneurs and professionals finding success early on (and there are certainly plenty of success stories out there). I have no doubt lots of hard work has gone into their start-up businesses.

But I’m still left wondering: where’s that crucial ‘E’?

Experience is an invaluable teacher for every person out there striving to achieve a goal. It helps hone those qualities that (I believe) make a great CEO. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t spent twenty plus years in the corporate world working my way up from assistant to managerial roles and learning from the directors and  CEOs I indirectly reported to, respected … and feared!

"Experience seemed like the real 'E' in CEO and I believe experience comes from years of practice and work, not simply putting a placard on your desk with the title."

Those CEOs worked their way through the ranks for many years and the experience they gained over those years gave them:

  • The ability to actively lead. Good CEOs have spent a lot of time building their company to be strong on all fronts and creating a culture that keeps employees motivated and enthusiastic. And they’ve done this by always having a clear vision of where the company is heading.
  • The willingness to get involved in every aspect of the company. A bad CEO might find themselves feeling above their workers, but a good one should never be afraid to get their hands dirty. Humility shows humanity.
  • The ability to communicate clearly. In order for a company to work efficiently, all parties have to be on the same page when it comes to communication, and that needs to come from the mouth of the CEO.
  • The ability to recognise their own faults. If a CEO is not a good fit for the position, or the company, they must be willing to admit it. If they expect everyone else to always be looking for ways to improve, then there is no reason for them to not be willing to do the same.
  • Perhaps the most significant quality, however, is the ability they have to make hard decisions. Decisions that are ultimately the right one for the companies they ran … but not so good for the individuals affected by them.

So I guess that no matter how brilliant, how successful and how ambitious, the young ‘CEOs’ of today are, they will continue to remain a source of scepticism for me until they’ve shown the kinds of runs on the board one can only get from years and years of experience..

What do you think? Am I being a bit old-fashioned in my thinking? Or do we need to get back to giving job titles like ‘CEO’ the weight they deserve?

Matthew White

is director of Ergoflex Australia, an online retailer of premium quality memory foam mattresses. As well as helping Australians get a better night's sleep, Matthew is a marketer, sleep blogger, father of four and home renovator.

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