The Deliberate CEO

NB: Please note that names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

Aidan O’Neill says that when he began running his first business shortly after he finished college, it wasn’t really like running a business at all.

“We were very good techies,” he says, “getting good business by talking to other techies.” His first company, he explains, was an outsourced software development company, specialising in content management. “There were 26 of us and we were doing reasonably well at that level, but at some point I realised that that wasn’t going to work in the long term, and I started looking at putting together a plan for growing the business.”

Making that transition – from the narrow focus of operations to the multi-faceted role of CEO – is never easy. Besides taking on a slew of new responsibilities, everything from marketing and sales to management and planning, you suddenly find yourself ploughing a very lonely furrow.

“There are all kinds of different challenges coming at you, challenges that you can’t really discuss with anyone else in the business. Even if you have a board, there are things you can’t always bring to it.”

O’Neill had always had a keen interest in personal development, in striving to improve his performance in everything he did. He recognised early on that the mental strengths required to succeed in his new role would only come if the environment was right, and a necessary part of creating that environment meant building good support networks.

“I always liked the idea of the mastermind stuff – bouncing things off peers. Because of the business I was in, I had a large network of tech CEOs, and whenever tech CEOs get together, we always talk business.”

These get-togethers were great, says O’Neill, but they were essentially informal. Without a formal structure, and a facilitation process to maintain it, any networking event could never be much more than a talking shop.

In 2008, he participated in a Leadership For Growth programme co-ordinated by Enterprise Ireland and Stanford University. As part of that process, the class was broken into bite sized groups and given a facilitator. It looked as if the structure and chairmanship that had been lacking in the informal setting might be provided here, but there was one problem. “The facilitator was no good,” says O’Neill. “He didn’t have the respect of the team.” This was a major frustration.

“At this point, I knew that that combination – understanding the challenges and providing the right facilitation – could really drive personal and business growth. With the right advice, an awful lot of the hassle, pain and strife that CEOs experience can be removed.”

It was out of just such a period of hassle, pain and strife that the idea of a mastermind group of peers took root with O’Neill.  He had inadvertently stumbled into a cashflow crisis. He was sitting with a friend – an executive coach – remonstrating with himself and trying to plot a way out of the mess.  “I said to Julie ‘You know, I just wish I could be a more deliberate CEO.’ She laughed and asked me what I meant. I said, ‘I wish I had seen this coming and dealt with it sooner. I wish hadn’t landed myself in a situation where there’s no money in the bank.’”

An unambiguous truth lies at the heart of the deliberateCEO concept. In leading your organisation forward, the best advice will always come from those who are leading their own organisations, those who wake up to the same challenges as you do every single morning.

“Basically the best support for a CEO is another CEO,” says O’Neill. “In my business career to date, there’s been only one advisor that I have continued to work with across sixteen years. My accountant. Why? The simple reason is that he continues to challenge me. Why? Because he’s growing his own business and he’s facing the same challenges himself.”