What does it take to be a CEO? Insights from Trade Me's Anders Skoe
Practical tips and personal experiences from the head of Trade Me.
CEO. These three letters represent the ultimate career goal for many of us. However, when you’re outside the C-suite looking in, it’s not always obvious where the door is.
What do boards and owners look for when recruiting a CEO, how can you show you’ve got what it takes, and what challenges should you expect once you get there?
To answer these questions, and more, we spoke to Trade Me CEO, Anders Skoe. Anders left his native Norway to take the helm here at Trade Me back in August 2019, and has plenty of useful advice for those eyeing a move into their first CEO position.
How did your first CEO role come about?
“My first CEO role was at FINN, Norway’s number one classifieds site. At the time I became CEO, I’d been with the company for six years,” Anders tells us.
At FINN, Anders held a variety of positions prior to becoming CEO. “My first role had been to build the data and insights team, and then I became the CFO (even though I come from an engineering background). After being CFO for about three years, I stepped into the CEO role.”
Anders’ first shot at the FINN CEO role wasn’t successful, something he says was a useful learning process: “It was a very good experience. It was an opportunity to learn exactly what recruiters and boards are looking for when they’re looking to fill a CEO role.”
What are the biggest challenges about stepping into a first CEO role?
Anders believes one of the biggest challenges for him was the fact he was promoted from among his peers. “There’s always a unique dynamic when that happens,” he says, “and I think it’s important to reflect on the best way to address that in a constructive way.”
To ease this process, Anders drew on a lesson from his upbringing: “I grew up in a family where you weren’t allowed to go to bed angry. So, I’m accustomed to the idea that, if there’s an elephant in the room. you address it up front, and you have that discussion sooner rather than later. So, that was a tactic I employed when I stepped into the CEO role at FINN.”
Similarly, Anders says, he was conscious about demonstrating that he had the breadth of experience necessary to be a CEO. “As a CFO, you tend to be perceived as more of a numbers person. So, when I took on the CEO role, I intentionally worked on trying to shift that perception. I wanted to show I’d be a rounded leader that cared about all aspects of the organisation, and recognised how all the roles in the business were contributing to its total success.”
To do this, Anders focused on making his first impression to the company at large. “The first time I was introduced to the company as CEO, I made a very deliberate effort to talk about things, not just in my professional background, but in my personality, that I’d like to think made me come across as being a well rounded member of the team.”
What qualities should a good CEO have?
Anders emphasises that good CEOs come in all shapes and sizes, and have different experiences prior to taking on the role. He also points to evidence showing that there isn’t one personality type that’s well suited to being a CEO. “Most people probably think you’ll be most successful as a CEO if you’re an extrovert. But, statistically, introverted CEOs do just as well as extrovert CEOs,” he tells us.
He also believes that many of the qualities that make a good CEO are qualities that make good people and leaders more generally. “This can be things like putting people first and putting the customer first, things you’d like to see in anybody,” he says.
However, there are a couple of qualities Anders believes are particularly important for a CEO to possess.
“Firstly, you have to be comfortable making decisions without the full information available to you,” he says. There’s a misconception, he tells us, that CEOs always have all the information they need to make tough calls, and that such decisions become easier as a result. In fact, this often isn’t the case, and so you need to be comfortable being decisive without having all the information at hand.
Anders also believes it’s important for CEOs to be able to let go of some of the hands-on work they’ve previously done. “Like it or not, the higher up the ladder you go, the further away you are from the details – you end up operating at a level that’s more abstract.”
So, it’s really important to have the right people around you, and not to try to run everything yourself: “As a CEO, you need to be willing, and comfortable, to hire people who know more than you about any given subject.”
What would be your advice to someone applying for their first CEO role?
“One thing I really believe in is continually learning and developing,” Anders says. “If you have that natural ability to look at every situation, whether good or bad, as an opportunity to learn, you’re gradually setting yourself up for bigger and maybe more interesting opportunities.”
He also firmly believes in gathering a solid breadth of experience. “Make sure you’re continually gaining exposure to new problems to be solved and new situations to deal with. At some point, your well-rounded profile will be a good match to an opportunity that comes up.”
Finally, Anders says, it’s important to want to be a CEO for the right reasons: “If you apply for a CEO role, make sure it’s something you really want to do, don't just do it because it gives you a title or builds your CV. Do it because it’s something that you will enjoy and will make you happy. We all spend so much time at work, so let’s make the most of it.”
Is there anything else would-be CEOs should know before taking the plunge?
Anders believes it’s common for would-be CEOs to put off going for the role because they don’t feel qualified. However, his advice is to “raise your hand and express your interest.”
“If you’re unsuccessful, he says, “the worst thing that can happen is that it’ll be a learning experience, as it was for me.”
And, if you’re successful and are experiencing imposter syndrome, it’s important to remember that: “Whoever did the hiring believed you were the best candidate among many, so you should go into the role feeling you have their backing.”
What's it like being a CEO during COVID?
“Being a CEO during Covid is tough, as it is for everyone. At Trade Me, I ended up making the decision that we had to go through a restructure in order to set the business up as best as we could, both to weather the storm we were in and to survive the uncertain times to come.
For me, as an individual, the hardest decisions I make are the ones that affect people. If it was about the numbers and finances, that’s one thing, but this was a situation where I had to make a really tough call that affected a lot of people – that's what I found hardest about COVID.”
What do you enjoy most about being a CEO?
“The thing I enjoy the most is the people I get to meet. Whether that’s the employees, customers, or representatives of other companies,” Anders says.
“Another thing that really motivates me personally is potential. To be part of a situation where I can help to realise the potential of a company, team or individual, is extremely motivating to me. As the CEO, you’re able to impact and influence and help deliver upon the potential of a full organisation.”
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