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CEO Frustration #4 – Have I Hit the Ceiling As a CEO?



Frustrated businessman work at laptop feel angry confused having software problems | CEO Frustration #4 - Have I Hit the Ceiling As a CEO? | featured

Some CEOs and organizations are simply better than most at producing results. What have they figured out? Likely, they have learned to address four primary frustrations, any one of which is capable of stymieing the effectiveness of the CEO and thus the organization:

  1. My executive team is not performing.
  2. We lack strategic execution.
  3. Our business results are not optimal.
  4. Have I Hit the Ceiling as a CEO?

These four issues can drive CEOs absolutely crazy. Why? Because the CEO is the individual most affected by the manifestations of these issues; yet, the CEO is the only person with the vested authority to make the changes required to move the organization beyond each challenge.

Accountability lies directly on the desk of the CEO.   If these four frustrations are addressed effectively, CEOs will likely see two positive outcomes: (1) improvement in the results of their organizations, and (2) increased personal satisfaction in their roles.

This article focuses on the last of these four frustrations.

RELATED: What People Don’t Tell You About Being a CEO

CEO Frustration #4: Have I Hit the Ceiling as a CEO?

Although more personal than organizational in nature, this frustration has a real impact on the results an organization is able to generate. Every executive “tops out” at some point, including the CEO.

Sometimes, the organization permanently grows beyond the ability of the CEO. Other times, the CEO only needs to learn new skills and gain additional experience to grow with the company. Both situations are equally challenging.

If you struggle with this frustration, it probably manifests itself as one of the following:

  • Feeling that you have hit your personal limit as a CEO and leader.
  • Feeling like you are swimming in water over your head.
  • Wondering whether you have the right style or personality to be the CEO.
  • The Owner and/or Founder should be CEO, right?

Feeling That You Have Hit Your Personal Limit as a CEO and Leader


Everybody has moments of doubt regarding their ability to excel in given roles and assignments. CEOs are no exception. In fact, CEOs are arguably more susceptible to such doubts because of the heavy burden of demands placed upon them.

They feel constant pressure to have all the answers, fix what is wrong, and produce financial results in a highly competitive and quickly changing market environment.

Furthermore, the CEO is a role model for the entire organization. Scott McNealy, co-founder and former CEO of Sun Microsystems, recently commented that when you occupy high-paid, highly visible leadership roles, you have to live “beyond yourself.”

In other words, you must demonstrate a willingness to set aside individual desires, motives, and preferences, acting in a manner of transparent character and integrity – all the time. Not just at work, not just in front of employees, but every single moment of every single day, in public and in private.

These are very intense expectations. Thus, it should come as no surprise that many CEOs wonder if they have hit their personal limit. “Am I cut out to do this job?” “Should I be in this role?” You have likely asked yourself these questions.

Feeling Like You Are Swimming in Water Over Your Head

The demands of a CEO position can be suffocating. Overwhelmed CEOs may think they do not have the right tools to do their job, but in many cases, they just need to better understand what their role should be.

All CEOs – whether they be the entrepreneurs who started their organizations or executives who rose through the ranks – have come to their position having formed a specific skill set.

The natural tendency is to keep doing whatever made them successful in previous assignments, but the role of CEO is different from other roles.

Do you ever wonder about your role as CEO? Do you ever worry that you don't have the right tools to fill the role effectively? Do you lack the experience or specific skills required for your role?

These are just a few examples of thoughts that produce the incredibly stressful feeling of struggling to keep your head above water.

Wondering Whether You Have the Right Style or Personality to Be CEO

This is a common mental pitfall for CEOs who are feeling overwhelmed by the task in front of them. Feeding this perception further is the constant media stream of star CEOs and executives.

They always seem to be highly driven, aggressive, bold, outspoken, and charismatic individuals, and living up to their “example” is enough to drive any CEO to extreme levels of self-doubt. “If what those people say and do are what's required to be successful,” you might say to yourself, “then I'm in big trouble.”

You must force yourself to remember that there is no single “right” style required to be a successful CEO. Sure, style and personality contribute to overall success, but they are not the only elements or even the most important ones.

The Owner and/or Founder Should Be CEO, Right?

Being a company's owner or founder does not automatically qualify someone to be CEO. The qualifications for an effective CEO are built on certain skills and experiences – none of which are required to start or own a business.

Ownership is merely a financial function, though the qualifications for ownership and leadership often exist in the same person at the levels necessary for a small or startup company. As an organization grows, however, the original founder may find he is unqualified to be CEO.

Very few entrepreneurs make it from start-up to Fortune 500 CEO. Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Scott McNealy, and Steve Jobs have done it, but even they have adjusted their respective roles as their companies grew and changed.

For many years, Michael Dell shared leadership responsibilities with Kevin Rollins; Bill Gates has moved from leading Microsoft's day-to-day operations to more of a technology visionary role, and Steve Jobs was moved out of Apple years ago before more recently being brought back into the organization.

How To Help This Issue Get Better

In our experience, self-doubt is one of the most common challenges for CEOs of growing organizations. We would love to offer a quick and easy solution, but it doesn't exist.

Overcoming self-doubt and learning to be an effective CEO requires a high level of discipline, and that takes time to develop.

You have to regularly set aside the immediate demands of the business and invest time in developing your personal capabilities and disciplines. The following guidelines may be helpful to you in tackling this frustration.

1. Develop the Habit of Continuous Learning 

In his article, “Why Entrepreneurs Don't Scale,” John Hamm notes four reasons why entrepreneurs struggle to lead their organizations as they grow in size and complexity:

  • Excessive loyalty to comrades
  • Task orientation
  • Single-mindedness
  • Working in isolation

Each of these reasons is instructive, and we encourage you to read the entire article. Relative to our current discussion, however, note that none of them are directly dependent on background, skill, or talent.

Instead, Hamm says the entrepreneurs who scale successfully take deliberate steps along the way to confront their own shortcomings. The key to this is being continuously open to learning.

2. Learn the Right Disciplines 

As you embrace continuous learning, begin with the works of Jim Collins, Patrick Lencioni, and Verne Harnish, all recognized experts who teach the fundamental disciplines necessary for any CEO to be successful. These disciplines should also be taught and continuously reinforced to your executive team. Examples include:

  • Reinforce a few key initiatives across the organization instead of continuously jumping from one initiative to another.
  • Set a few clear priorities.
  • Create a “stop-doing” list.
  • Build a culture of trust that enables better delegation.
  • Learn the right questions to ask.
  • Develop the habit of asking more questions than you give answers.

In addition to these writers, Peter Drucker is a wonderful source of business and leadership wisdom. We strongly encourage you to read (and re-read often) his article entitled “What Makes an Effective Executive.”

3. Make Building a Strong Executive Team Your First Habit

This is the first discipline in The Four Obsessions of An Extraordinary Executive by Patrick Lencioni, and our experience leads us to agree this is the first discipline that a CEO should learn. The first step is finding the right people for the executive team, and the second step is getting them to work together effectively. Mastering this discipline:

  • spreads the accountability for results among a larger group. The CEO must have help to successfully achieve desired results.
  • builds a model of discipline for the entire organization.
  • accelerates the rate of learning for the CEO. Leading an executive team of “A players” forces the CEO to stay sharp. We see this same effect when an athlete plays far above his normal capability when faced with a superior opponent.

In short, embracing this first habit increases the CEO's confidence in his own abilities and improves the overall performance of the organization through increased alignment and accountability.

4. Establish the CEO Role to Fit Your Style 

Research and history have shown that there is no one “right style” required to be successful as a CEO. According to Peter Drucker, personalities, styles, strengths, weaknesses, attitudes, and values of effective CEOs vary widely. Successful CEOs shape the role to their own style in order to be effective and produce results. Drucker asserts that this process begins simply by knowing your own strengths, values, and preferences and then asking two simple questions:

  • What needs to be done?
  • Knowing my strengths, values, and preferences, what should my contribution be?

Knowing the answers to these questions makes it much easier to shape the position to the CEO's style. If, however, you still find yourself troubled by the flamboyant, charismatic style of some famous CEOs, remember the Level 5 Leader as described in Good to Great by Jim Collins.

A Level 5 Leader is someone who blends personal humility with a strong passion for the success of the organization – the polar opposite of a flamboyant “rock star” CEO.

After carefully considering these issues, you may decide someone else is better suited for the CEO role. This may seem like an uncomfortable conclusion at first, but if you act on it, you will likely find yourself more engaged, excited, and productive.

Plus, the organization will perform better. Do not rush into this decision, however. Give yourself time to grow into the CEO role before judging whether you're the right fit. Ultimately, you should act in the best interest of the organization, and as its leader, that will correspond with what's in your best interest.   


This frustration can drive CEOs absolutely crazy. The good news is that the CEO is also is the sole person with the power to eliminate it! If you are a CEO, honestly assessing this issue may help you see that you're more qualified than you think!

On the other hand, it might reveal that someone else is better suited for your role.  Either way, the courage to address it will improve your personal and organizational performance and increase your satisfaction with your role.

Troy Schrock is cofounder of CEO Advisors, LLC and a licensed advisor of The CEO Advantage. The CEO Advantage is a strategy execution process for CEOs and executive teams of midmarket organizations.

Most companies have a strategy; the challenge is to execute that strategy, and the inability to execute strategy is the primary reason why CEOs fail. CEO Advantage advisors help CEOs and executive teams implement a disciplined process for strategy execution which aligns the entire organization around a single vision and translates that vision into results.

Learn more, including the other three frustrations, at

Copyright 2009 CEO Advisors, LLC. (Adapted from “Four Frustrations of a CEO,” Copyright 2009 CEO Advisors, LLC). Reprints permitted as long as the author's information, website, and copyright statement are included.

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