Break Free of the Management Weeds and Become a Real CEO

By George Rosenberg

“Can you help me be a real CEO?”

As an advisor and coach to agency owners for more than 13 years and a former agency CEO, this is a question I hear often. These ambitious and often young agency owners – many of whom typify Counselor’s Academy members -- want to grow significantly, hire and keep the best talent, manage their staffs with excellence, run a profitable firm and feel that they are indeed, successful CEOs. Who wouldn’t want to ? But it ain’t easy!

Building a successful agency is an incredibly tough job – and an even tougher one for owners who must wear multiple hats and try to do it all. But one job is more critical than all the rest – becoming a real CEO and too many owners are forced to learn on the fly and wonder “what does it take to become a real CEO?”

With the day-to-day stress of running a firm, getting caught in the management weeds is almost a given. So how do you break free? How do you focus on the job of being a CEO? How do you create a leadership culture and develop and implement a strategic growth plan that not only keeps your employees motivated but also spells success for your firm?

At this year’s Counselors Academy Spring Conference in Seattle I’ll be talking about what makes a successful CEO as part of a breakout session on leadership with colleague Ken Jacobs. I’ve identified 10 key traits of successful CEOs that I’ll share during the session. Here is an “appetizer portion” of five of those traits that I’ve observed working with my clients – your peers – and from my own experience as an agency CEO.  

  1. Leads with a vision and single-mindedly focuses on achieving that vision. I believe that creating a vision for the firm you want to become is the cornerstone of great leadership and the number one job for any aspiring CEO.  Visions are not about financial goals, they are about a picture of the type of firm you want to create. If you don’t know where you want to “wind up” – say three years from today – how can you expect to get there. However, creating the vision is not enough; you must rigorously oversee an implementation strategy to help you achieve that vision. As Thomas Edison said so many years ago, “Vision without execution is hallucination”.
  2. Believes consistent business planning is critical for sustained growth.  There’s a tendency to minimize the importance of annual (or better still quarterly or semi-annual) business planning. Business planning, if done correctly, represents the “conscience” of your firm. It is the time(s) when you dissect the vision, review results, critically evaluate your business development and marketing efforts and determine whether or not your implementation plan is on target. 
  3. Learns and respects the financial side of the business. I hear this all the time, “I’m not very good with numbers” and “no I don’t have an operating budget. What goes into one?” If you want to be a successful CEO, you need to understand that managing the financial health of your business is one of your primary functions.  Invest in a smart bookkeeper or part-time financial manager to help you. Trust her and your business coach to help guide you through the necessary financial steps – annual budget, rolling quarterly budgets, capacity analysis, and utilization statistics to cite some of the most important – to manage your business better. 
  4. Develops a strong second-tier management team (or person). You’ve all heard this: “You can’t hope to sell your firm with a strong number two”. While that is obviously important to you it’s also clear to me you will have a hard time growing your business if you don’t have a strong right hand to manage the firm, while you are out there winning business. I’ll wager 99 percent of the firms I know and work with, the top bizdev person is the owner (the CEO). You cannot do it all. Invest in a number two. If your current number two is not good enough, find the right person. Enough said.
  5. Becomes talent-centric (more than client centric). You will never build a great firm without great people. Great people attract great clients. Fill your firm with “stars” and the business will follow. If overseeing the financial health of your firm is job number one, then finding and keeping “stars” is job 1A. Too many agency owners are so deep in the “client weeds” they don’t realize just how average some of their staff really is. Average doesn’t cut it anymore. 

In our business, there is little that’s more rewarding running a successful, thriving agency with bright people motivated to follow you as a leader. Commit to being that successful CEO – whether you run a 20+ person firm or a three-person shop. I hope to see you in Seattle!

George Rosenberg has spent the last 15 years advising and coaching owners of public relations and integrated communications firms on how to grow and manage their agency more effectively. He helps CEOs and senior managers address such key agency needs as creating a vision and strategic plan for their firm, developing and implementing new business and other growth strategies, positioning the firm, hiring and retaining “stars” and dealing with operational and other human resource issues. He also coaches owners and CEOs on leadership and management development, and advises them on mergers, acquisitions, alliances, and exit strategies. Prior to his role as advisor to firms, George spent many years in the agency business as a senior executive with Burson-Marsteller and as President and CEO of Cohn & Wolfe.