Lessons from a first-time CEO

For anyone who is about to embark on their first CEO role, or aspires to do so, Mahara Inglis says it’s both the most rewarding and hardest job you’ll ever have.

I began my first CEO role over a year ago for the New Zealand cellular heath company MitoQ, just as Covid was spreading rapidly around the globe and New Zealand was entering its very first lockdown.

Not exactly ideal timing, but this piece isn’t about Covid, even though that brought unique challenges, it’s about sharing some lessons from a first-time CEO. 

My hope is that others who are stepping into their first CEO role, or are aiming to one day, can find some helpful insights here. And for those who are experienced CEOs, that you can recognise some shared challenges and learnings.  


1. Feeling the weight

I’m sure everyone reading this has felt pressure and expectation in their careers. But this reached another level for me when I took on the responsibilities of a CEO. Covid exacerbated things, but it goes much wider. Every day there are decisions that can have huge impacts on the entire company, our customers, and our employees.

This adds pressure that’s really hard to try and limit to work. In fact the other day my partner called me out over dinner, “You’re not really here with us, are you?” And she was right. 

My lessons:

• Put in place good support networks – both at a personal level but also people who have been through similar experiences (peer networks can be fantastic).

• The higher the stress the more I need to exercise and look after my personal well-being.

• If ‘not-present’ at home, I take two mins out to write down the challenges/thoughts. That gets them off front-of-mind for me and allows me to be present. 


2. People power

We all know great people are key. But that appreciation went to another level when I stepped into the CEO role. You will have so many things going on that having a safe pair of hands who can be relied upon to deliver exceptional results and bring you in when needed is extremely valuable.

My lessons:

• Talent trumps experience. The common trait for highly talented people is humility and a desire for feedback to get better. Spot those people, develop them and they’ll level up again.

• Heat experiences are great for showing who will step up under pressure but can burn people out. Be thoughtful about how you use them.

• Build your networks of talented people outside your company that you can tap into as/when your company needs them.

• Highly talented and driven people are not needed in every role. Put them in the key strategic roles or value drivers for your business.


3. Clean sheet the strategy

When I joined MitoQ, the board had already started on a new strategic direction. However I knew that I was ultimately accountable, so I decided to systematically “clean sheet” the strategy.

I spoke to everyone in the company and loads of customers, asked untold dumb questions, listened, challenged prior decisions, built models from scratch, and finally synthesised it together. The end result was not materially different from the previous direction set, but it was now sharper and I felt full ownership of the direction.

My lessons:

• Have coffee with everyone in the company and ask them all: “If you were the new CEO, what are the top three things you’d do?” I got this advice before starting and it was some of the best I’ve ever received.

• It’s worthwhile clean sheeting your strategy so you can truly own it. But be aware that some people may think you are relitigating prior decisions.


4. Getting s*** done

Strategies can look great on paper but delivering them is hard. This is especially true in some bigger corporates where strategies struggle to translate into traditional functional silos and compete with BAU.

Our approach has been to run “year-long agile sprints”. We set the annual strategic priorities (we call them “Must Win Battles”), allocate specific owners and sponsors for each, build cross functional teams, set stretch targets (using the OKR framework – Objectives and Key Results) and then align everyone’s objectives to deliver the Must Win Battles. We also stopped all other activities that don’t align.

To drive execution we have set up dashboards and monthly check-and-adjust meetings which are led by the operational owners.

My lessons:

• Don’t try to do everything all at once. Choose the top priorities for where you are on your roadmap and use descriptors that motivate people. For example –  “growing market share” isn’t all that inspirational.

• Cross-functional ownership is key to delivery. Don’t limit teams or priorities to functional silos.

• The OKR framework can be a powerful tool – just make it your own.

• Don’t only focus on sales, focus on the operational metrics that drive your business (e.g., marketing funnel, NPS, engagement, etc). But be aware – there are lots of potential metrics and they’re harder to measure.

5. Purpose driven culture – beyond
buzz words

It’s become a cliché, but there’s a reason that purpose and culture are right up there on most CEO’s agenda.

When I joined, some work had been started but there was a lot left to do. My first step was to do a 360 survey of employees, customers, board, and key stakeholders to understand “What MitoQ means to you”, and (for internal audiences) feedback on our culture. We used this to articulate our Purpose, Vision, and Values, and prioritise elements of our culture to work on.

My lessons:

• Culture needs to be owned throughout the company. BUT the CEO needs to lead this (this is one you can’t delegate!).

• Call out the elephants in the room – there are often underlying issues that go unsaid. People will appreciate the candor and willingness to tackle issues head on.

• Purpose and culture aren’t amorphous immeasurable ‘things’. You can break them down, prioritise elements, and set objectives.


6. The board: beyond governance

I think many of us have seen companies where the board is seen as governance to be ‘managed’. My approach to everything is to tap into lots of smart brains to help solve complex issues and that extends to the board. For a new CEO this has been particularly useful as they provide the context of historical decisions.

Whilst I remain accountable, I have found that this approach means, a) I have now properly pressure-tested ideas, and b) the board is fully supportive of where we are going.

My lessons: 

• Don’t go to the board looking for rubber stamping. Share the big issues, give them options and recommendations but facilitate a robust discussion. 

• Be ready to be challenged, but also be ready to challenge your board.


7. Becoming a ‘brand ambassador’

The most unexpected lesson for me was becoming a brand ambassador. This may be unique to our business, but over the past year I’ve been filmed, interviewed, photographed, given speeches, and had hundreds of pictures taken. It has been an amazing experience. It has also taken some getting used to… especially as I never achieved my other goal of making the All Blacks so don’t have experience in this sort of stuff!

My lessons:

• Be authentic, get comfortable seeing yourself in marketing collateral.

• Don’t do what I did, which is wait until some pointed comments on Chinese social media before refreshing my dated wardrobe!

So those are my top lessons. It hasn’t all been plain sailing. We’ve faced a lot of challenges and there are plenty of things I would do differently if I had my time over again. But it’s been an incredible year and the team is building great momentum. Hopefully some of this has been helpful as you embark on, or plan, your own CEO journey.  


Mahara Inglis, who holds an MBA from UC Berkeley, had international experience at Fonterra, McKinsey and BP, before taking up his role at MitoQ.

MitoQ is a fast-growing cellular health company which produces next generation supplements that target and optimise cellular health. It is headquartered in New Zealand but its major markets are the United States, China, Australia, and New Zealand. MitoQ is currently sold to customers in 140 countries globally, and employs almost 50 people in New Zealand, the USA and China. 

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