Gini Dietrich

Lessons I’m Learning In My Journey to the Top

By: Gini Dietrich | May 5, 2009 | 

Nearly two years ago I had to make the transition from working in the business to working on the business. It was a difficult transition (still is sometimes) because no one tells you how to do it. When I asked my peers, friends, and family what a CEO should be doing, no one could give me a straight answer.

I read a ton of books.  I read every article I could find.  I brought it as an issue to my Vistage group.  I asked other entrepreneurs turned CEOs.  I kept a list of things I thought I should be doing as a CEO.

It turns out being the CEO of a company you founded means different things to different people.  What is important to me may not be important to other business leaders, which is probably why I couldn’t find the magic answer in all of my searching.

Following are some of the lessons I’m learning in my journey to the top:

* Cash truly is king

* Debt isn’t bad, unless there is a recession and you can’t get access to capital

* Big is not always better; profit is always best

* Leadership is not about being the first one in and the last one to leave, nor about working the most hours

* Employee communication should happen only in person; internal email sucks

* Just because you have three letters after your name does not mean you have to be all business all of the   time, if it doesn’t fit your personality

* If our clients aren’t happy and want me working on their accounts, it’s because I haven’t done my staff   coaching and mentoring job well enough

* My time is best spent on innovation, coaching and mentoring staff, landing the whales, and being the face of the company

* It’s okay to say no, if it’s for something not in the four areas listed above

* It’s good to shake things up every once in a while, in an effort to stay ahead of the trends

* It’s great to have friends who run competitive companies; if the relationship is set up correctly, we work very well together

* People like working for a company that stands for something and lives its values

* My gut is ALWAYS right

* Engagement, connection, and transparency are the most important communication tools – with employees, with clients, with prospects, with talent candidates, with vendors, with partners, and any other stakeholder

* Bad news does not go away and it does not get better with age; no matter how much I hate conflict, sometimes it’s worse in my head than it is in reality

* Having fun with my colleagues, and connecting with them as people, is what I truly love about getting up and going to work every day

What have you learned? What do you do that is not on this list?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Good post, Gini!

    Cash, and more importantly, profit is always king. Without profit, any business will lag. Better to have a smaller business with a big profit margin than a bigger business without enough profit.

    I’d add that the CEO is responsible for building the team and ensuring that everyone on the team sells. Without a team that can sell at every level, the business will falter. Like they say, sales cure all ills.

    CEOs are responsible for the culture of the company and must lead by example.

  • Gini,

    Great post. When I work with executives two of the first questions I ask are “what do you love to do?” and “What can only you do for the business?” You have answered both of those, and others, amazingly well for yourself.

    All the best,


  • Molli Megasko

    Something to practice at the top, in the middle, and at the bottom is to listen more than talk. I’ve been surprised at the creative ideas I can come up with when I shut my mouth.

  • Happy

    Good stuff. I’ll keep it in mind.

  • This is a great, post Gini. The list is brilliant and so true. I can relate. Two things I’d add to my list (because I’d mostly steal yours) are –

    -never stop being a mentee. There are always more experienced, more successful executives from whom I can learn what to be or not to be as a leader. Everyone is a teacher for me. My colleagues, staff, clients. I have to be constantly learning or I might as well be done.

    -my personal motto is ‘to lead is to serve’ – how can I best serve my cohorts to support them in doing their best work? how can I serve my clients to empower them through the solutions we develop for them (directly/personally or indirectly (through my team))?

    wise words, CEO!

  • Gini – great thoughts! Corporate life at the top moves very fast. Executives in the first two years of a new position have a lot to gain and a lot to lose. It’s important to have the type of concentration every day that: 1) weeds out the less important, and 2) helps you focus your time and energy on the people/tasks/issues that are best for the company (and in a manner which sustains profit/growth for both the business and people).

  • I’d like to discuss this piece at your convenience…

  • I think the term CEO carries a negative ring with it for a lot of people. CEOs are the assholes that screw everyday people out of jobs and get rewarded for it. CEOs are the status quo enforcers. CEOs are more machine than human and prefer 24/7 business rather than family and friends.

    You’ve taken that negative ring and thrown it out the window (smashing the car of one of those asshole CEOs I just mentioned!). In my opinion, you are an amazing example of who a CEO should be and what true leadership really means.

    Keep up the good work over there! I find myself reading your blog more and more…

  • That part “my gut is ALWAYS right” is the best piece anyone can take from this. No matter who they are or what their role.

    If it smells like a crappy deal — even if it’s just you at the company — it’s probably a crappy deal. If people aren’t treating you with respect, then walk away. Your gut about whom to work with and whom to stay the #$%@ away from: those are the best things you’ve got going for you.

    I’ve made some really good friends in this business-building process (I’m on build-out number 2) and I’d rather align myself with good people and then figure out what we’re doing together than work with people I don’t like.

    Great blog post, as always…

  • Great post.

    When it comes to “connection, engagement, transparency” I am with you all the way. These are conditions that facilitate creativity, innovation leading most invariably to profitability.

    I’d add two which I think are implicit in your list
    1. Trust – if you have the conditions you describe, trust follows and with trust you can go a very long way.
    2. Find out what turns people onto their best work – when are they “in the zone.” It usually means they are working to their strengths. Investing in people’s strength provide a good ROI, and that certainly F.A.D.S. Take a look at

  • “My gut is ALWAYS right” – yes, it certainly is! I find it should be attached to my brain – it’s certainly right more of the time.

  • Gini:

    One of my early mentors said that his job as CEO was “to find talented people and interesting problems; get them together and get out of the way.” I don’t think he’s far off, we are responsible for the talent and the strategy, and making sure the resources are there, oh, and getting out of the way.

    Keep these posts coming.

  • Great post…I love this because I’ve found that there are VERY few resources for entrepreneurs who realize they want a REAL company and are becoming a ceo.

    One thing I realized along the way was how VITAL it is to keep my team inspired w/ the big vision and communicate how we are doing with goals along the way.

    They are all bringing different strengths to the table…my job is to hold the vision…not get in the weeds and try to do it all!

    Melanie Benson Strick
    CEO, Success Connections

  • Great post. I agree with the Lessons you describe above and include parts of many of them when providing HR Advice to Small Business Owners who are at times either CEOs or entrepreneurs. As a wise person once said to me, you can either own a business or it can own you – it can never be both ways.

    This transition is the crux of that statement because a CEO owns his/her business and spends their time focused on growth of it free of attachment it to them individually.

    Thanks for a great post.

  • mcakitz (maria c alvarez0

    Very true even for non-CEOs, great post ! 🙂

  • My gut is always right but my brain serves me better.

  • “To lead is to serve” is a concept business leaders should learn from volunteer leaders. If it will work when people are not being paid, can you imagine the results you’ll get if you pay them?

    Shar McBee, author of TO LEAD IS TO SERVE: How to attract volunteers and keep them.

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