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The transition to CEO brings a new identity

A CEO of a mid-sized company recently told me that she had “forgotten” how to carry out her professional functions. I don’t think she has, but when she explained that, “it requires sitting down and thinking about it,” I understood.

I expect that when accountants, lawyers, doctors and other professionals spend some years as executives or running companies, they too find that while they love their profession, they just cannot sit still long enough to practise it any more. Time feels like the executive’s scarcest asset, and over a few years the habit of using each moment productively becomes irresistible. Driving is for making phone calls, jogging or walking are for listening to podcasts, meetings offer time to answer emails, and the bathroom is for catching up on news.

Sitting down to a few hours of concentrated bean counting seems like an intolerable indulgence.

Is that a gain or a loss? It can be either or both, depending on how well the executive reserves time for home and recreation, and for reflecting about the purpose and health of their company. But this change almost inevitably comes with the transition to CEO, a profound step that requires and creates a change in self-image. That new identity brings new attitudes and behaviours.

The passage from one state to another, with the accompanying change in the perception of the self, has been labelled a liminal experience, from the Latin for threshold. It happens when we change job, are promoted, have a major change in family status such as marriage or parenthood, lose a loved one, or experience life-threatening illness. Key to understanding liminality is understanding the associated identity change.

I used to think that the passage to CEO requires one deep liminal transition, as the self-concept takes on all the attributes of being in charge. But now I realise there is at least one more that comes later. The belief that everything rests on me, and the company cannot afford a moment without my hands on the levers of control, changes again as I stand back and admire the competence and commitment of my team and let them take control.

That’s a necessary liminal transition at least for founders who wish to remain as CEO as their companies grow.

In his popular book, Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests that the way to change a habit is to change our self-perception. When we change our identity the new behaviours that reflect the new identity can become habitual. “Behavior that is not congruent with the self will not last,” he writes.

So changes in leader behaviour only persist if based on a change in identity – from leader as boss, for example, to leader as facilitator or even servant.

So if I want to found a company, I first need to practise regarding myself as a founder and CEO, with all the required disciplined and initiating habits. With my new status I am no longer comfortable with Incompatible habits like being passive or lazy. Then as the company grows, I may find my self-image changing again to that of a coach and facilitator, and my controlling, driving behaviours will seem less appropriate.

Of course change in circumstances can be destructive too. If our identity and self-worth depend on our achievements or status, as in “wealthy” or “CEO”, then when the business fails or we retire, we may fall apart. We lose ourselves – surely the worst of all losses.

A more sustainable underpinning identity is one based on the fundamental values and attributes that make us who we are, such as integrity, compassion, or creativity. This is our foundation through the changing professional identities as our career ebbs and flows. But that’s a topic for another day.

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook


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