From VP to CEO - Key challenges and executive coaching topics

Moving from a functional leader to CEO is a key leadership passage.  It is marked by great opportunity, and a great deal of failure.  The first few weeks are usually celebrated with fanfare, and then the schedule fills rapidly and the pressure mounts.  Yet, all too often, within a few years of their appointment, CEO’s are on their way out.  These days the average tenure is three years.  Hardly enough time to make long lasting and sustainable change.  So, what are the unique career challenges that a talented vice president will face as they move into the CEO seat?  What are the challenges they must overcome to be successful? Challenge One:  Delivering Consistent Top and Bottom Line Results

The CEO is responsible for longer term sustained value in the business and quarterly performance.  They must learn how to anticipate longer term drivers of competitive advantage, and the long term ramifications of their decisions.  They need to make decisions about the short term tactics with the longer term in mind, and they need to do this for all the functional areas, not just the one where they have the most expertise.

Challenge Two:  Setting Company Direction

Visioning, strategic acumen, and positioning know how are all crucial skills for setting a company direction that will lead to competitive advantage.  A new CEO must decide where to take the company, clarify the assumptions being made about the changing industry or field, and figure out what competitive issues the organization must heed.  This requires a greater balance between external and internal drivers than in a VP role and the ability to translate this knowledge to a vision, competitive advantage, and money making business model.

Challenge Three:  Shaping the Culture

Every company is like a living and breathing organism that is constantly changing and evolving.  It is also a social organization with overt and covert ways of operating.  Part of the CEO’s role is to create a workplace culture and social environment that will energize people at all levels, while at the same time striving for tangible business results.  More so than for VP positions, this involves establishing values, and ways of interacting with one another that is healthy and builds trust, and holding a vision for “how things get done around here” as well as the desired outcomes.

Challenge Four:  Building a High Performing Executive Team

Managing through other executives rather than middle managers is a hallmark of this career transition.  To do it well, the CEO must build a high performing leadership team and a future pipeline of leaders.  This often requires a clear vision for what it means to be a successful leader in the organization, ensuring the right people are in the right roles, and establishing a team culture that encourages authentic debate, trust, and results.

Challenge Five:  Developing Operational Breadth

The CEO needs to understand day-to-day operational realities so they can appreciate the issues facing those responsible for operations, and form a complete picture of the business.  A key part of this leadership passage is thinking about the business holistically, and how it fits together, and the tensions and the cross functional challenges that exist, rather than being a vice president with limited scope and breadth.

Challenge Six:  Getting to Know Customers

Understanding customer needs, having executive level relationships with customers, and knowing the competition can be critical for sustaining competitive advantage and optimizing products, services, and pricing.   Functional managers moving into the CEO role need to balance their time between internal and external relationships, and spend time building trust and credibility with customers, while at the same time managing customer risks.

Challenge Seven:  Building Influence and Credibility

Functional leaders moving into the top job need to develop their credibility as the CEO, even if they have been in the business for a long time.  To do this, it can be beneficial to pick a date for officially transitioning into the new role, both mentally and in terms of responsibility.  To build influence if  helps to be clear about where the organization is headed, so that the CEO can build allies throughout locations, teams, and stakeholder groups.


  • Manager Excellence Resource Center, Corporate Executive Board.
  • From CFO to CEO – Route to the Top.  Spencer Stuart
  • The Leadership Pipeline.  Ram Charan et al