How can first-time CEOs manage stress effectively? 


New to the top job? Don’t panic! David Roche shares practical tips to help first-time CEOs succeed  

McKinsey asserts that $1trillion is lost every year in market value of S&P’s top 1500 companies because of poorly planned transitions of CEOs and C-suite appointments. Not surprising, then, that two out of five CEOs fail in their first 18 months, according to the Harvard Business Review.  

Only when a leader is prepared to ask questions and lean on the skills of others can they create the environment that allows their and their team’s skills to shine  

When a new CEO is expected to be out of the blocks on day one and delivering items on the ‘100-day plan’, it’s no wonder that seven out of 10 leaders are said to suffer doubts about their experience or skills being adequate.  

This is before we have even factored in the high stress levels that often accompany executive positions. For first-time CEOs in particular, the combination of the pressure of a new role and the perceived expectations of others can quickly feel overwhelming. In this article, I discuss how first-time CEOs can manage stress effectively.  

Don’t shy away from asking questions  

There is the expectation that those who have reached the top of an organisation will come pre-loaded with all the necessary experience and skills required for the job. New CEOs will often have had an impressive career to date so, to others, it looks like it all comes naturally.  

But these first-time CEOs have been taken out of their comfort – and sometimes competence – zone and put into an unfamiliar position of overall responsibility they have not experienced before to this degree.  

As a result of the new pressures, some choose to wear the armour of a supremely confident image despite the rising stress levels underneath. This is why it is essential first-time CEOs are open in asking questions and admitting when they don’t know everything, to prevent stress from taking hold.  

Genuine confidence is evidenced when the leader reaches out for help, as it creates an environment that encourages debate and accepts differing viewpoints. Only when a leader is prepared to ask questions and lean on the skills of others can they create the environment that allows their and their team’s skills to shine through and maintain a healthy relationship with stress.   

Proactively build relationships  

As a first-time CEO, the key relationships you should be building both inside and outside the company all start with you, as the one constant in every relationship that you have. If you are operating from a position of stress, this is going to impact your relationships, so understanding how you can manage stress is essential as well as leaning on these relationships in times of pressure.  

Proactive relationship building is essential to lessening the load of the CEO. If coming up with ideas solely rests with the executive team, this is only going to increase stress and pressure at the top. The best ideas tend to come from those working within the business, but if you haven’t built a relationship with these individuals, they will be far less likely to share this with you.  

By spending time getting to know individuals across the business, first-time CEOs will create an idea-sharing culture, but it is important this is then reinforced with appreciation that extends to every facet of the organisation, including clients, suppliers and customers. This appreciation for your team’s work is key to managing stress.  

These relationships also allow CEOs to be able to regularly temperature-check the stress levels in their team to prevent things from negatively impacting wellbeing and productivity.  

Work with a coach and mentor   

New CEOs can be prepared for what they need to do technically, but are most often unprepared for the psychological and emotional intricacies and impacts associated with the role. This is why working with a coach and mentor can help to handle stressful situations effectively.  

First-time CEOs need a safe sounding board and a wise head to help think things through. This is where coaching and mentoring add enormous value. The results can be dramatic. When your problems seem insurmountable – and stress can often make things seem that way – the solution can appear miraculous.  

When new CEOs encounter stress, it’s the openness to asking questions, building supportive relationships, and working with a coach and mentor that will help them persevere. This allows them to grow and succeed as a first-time CEO, while maintaining a positive relationship with stress.  

David Roche is a professional coach and mentor at Grey Area Coaching, chair of London Book Fair and the writing agency New Writing North, and author of Just Where You Left It 

David Roche

Learn More →