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The survivor’s guide to being a CEO

Here are 10 tips for succeeding in a leadership position.

The survivor’s guide to being a CEO
[Source photo: bgblue/Getty Images]

This year marked my 23rd anniversary as the CEO of a public company. At LivePerson, we’ve seen very high highs and some pretty low lows as we navigated challenges like the dotcom crash and 9/11, as well as opportunities like the shift to mobile messaging and the recent dawn of generative AI and LLM (large language model) technologies.

When the latest anniversary rolled around, it got me thinking about what it takes to have longevity in this job. After all, the average public company CEO tenure is just about five years. So, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise when I say that keeping on top of my mental health and continuing to grow as a leader rank among the greatest challenges of my life. At this stage in my career, I feel a responsibility to help others learn from my mistakes and my successes. With that context in mind, here are my top 10 survival tips for today’s public company CEOs—or anyone who wants to succeed in a leadership position.

10. Keep your eye on the ball, not the scoreboard. LPSN stock hit a low of 0.07 a share in 2001. At the other end of the spectrum, we hit around $70 during the pandemic. The fact is, your stock price rarely reflects what’s going on inside your company. It is often simply reflective of external factors outside your control. Don’t get lost in the emotional highs and lows of stock prices when you should really be concentrating on getting the real work done.

9. Be Cal Ripkin Jr. Speaking of ball games, I’ve always been a big fan of Cal. Over 2,600 games and almost 20 years, he didn’t miss a single work day. When you’re (metaphorically) injured and others are batting home runs, it takes real strength to get out of bed and take the field. But you should always show up.

8. Don’t let yourself become a follower. This has never been more true than it is now in the new age of AI that we’ve entered. The rate of change is accelerating across every industry, and the most successful leaders (and companies) will not be the ones following others. Going forward, there will be so many new, previously unimaginable ways to use AI that CEOs and companies will need to be even more imaginative leaders, ones unafraid to take risks. More broadly, you’re going to have days when people try to rank you against other leaders who may, in the moment, be excelling at a time when you’re fighting to keep your head up. When that happens, don’t listen. Live as yourself, not as others.

7. Commit to the curves. Building a company requires navigating both times of acceleration and times of reconstruction. There are moments when you’re flying up the S-curve and times when you’re at the bottom of that curve. With the right leadership, your team will get something out of all the stages of the S-curve. Often it’s when you are at the bottom that your team comes together, learns hard lessons, and finds out how to move forward together. Adversity is simply time out to readjust.

6. It’s not just about you. I could never have made it for almost 30 years as my own boss and 23 years as head of a public company if I thought it was just me out there. I believe there’s a higher power that guides us through good times and bad, perhaps especially when things look tough. This looks different for everyone, but just know you’re not alone when you look at things from a greater perspective.

5. Let the skeptics wear themselves out. Negativity is a symptom in people that don’t know how to achieve their own goals or simply can’t see the vision that you and your team are working on. It is simply not your job to convince resolutely negative people to come around to your point of view. You have only so much energy to expend, and these are not the people that will help you get where you’re going. Sometimes leaders need to ignore the skeptics.

4. Find the energy. There’s nothing like working with people who are truly passionate about taking a big idea and turning it into reality. In fact, it’s the number one thing that gets me out of bed each day. I know I owe a debt of gratitude to all the people who have lent their enthusiasm to making our company’s vision into tangible outputs that actually help people. Find your own optimistic and passionate partners as you build your business.

3. Run the company like an athlete. Looking back, I remember my grandfather telling me that health is everything and without it, you’re unlikely to achieve your biggest dreams. As CEO, the energy you’ll spend running a company is extreme, and the only way to stay on top of things is to take care of your physical and mental health just like an athlete. Taking your job seriously means taking yourself seriously.

2. Be the mountain. When you see a mountain, it can look so still from a distance. But up close, change is everywhere. Leaves fall from the trees, avalanches send animals running, and water cascades in all directions. And as we’re seeing now with generative AI, sometimes the mountain isn’t still—it’s vibrating wildly with exciting new technologies and advances. In either case, it’s your job as CEO to stand tall and still while change buffets your organization from all sides.

1. Go to the light. Finally, and most important, keep going even when the darkness feels overwhelming. You will have dark days. It will get difficult if you’re trying to achieve anything of importance. Being CEO is tremendously exciting, but it can also be terribly painful sometimes. When those times hit, ride them out. Find the learnings, figure out how to change, and move forward toward the light. It will get better.

Industry-changing trends like generative AI (or whatever comes next) aren’t always easy for CEOs to navigate. But I believe leaders thrive when they not only focus on their own beliefs and actions but also inspire others to rise together during hard times and rejoice together during good ones. Today I look at the possibilities ahead for me and my company and see a bright new day. I hope that these lessons from my career help you keep moving to the light.

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