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August 22, 2018

Findings from Our CEO Journey Study

man climbing a tower by the ocean

Indra Nooyi, the current CEO of PepsiCo, doesn’t take her position as the world’s second largest food and beverage corporation lightly. “Just because you are CEO, don’t think you have landed,” she once said. “You must continually increase your learning, the way you think and the way you approach the organization. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Time and again, CEOs like Nooyi tell us the same thing: The life of a CEO is tough. It’s mentally and emotionally demanding on both personal and professional levels, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.

At Norwest, we currently work with and support more than 140 CEOs on a regular basis. To foster connections among them, we’ve kicked off a number of initiatives that cultivate a mutually supportive leadership community. For example, our CEO dinner series gives these talented leaders the opportunity to meet face to face and discuss issues that are top of mind. We also host events and webinars where they share best practices so they can learn from each other. We conduct surveys to better understand the multi-faceted journey a CEO, and offer convenient channels for our leaders to communicate with one another.

Our new 2018 CEO Journey research sheds light on the full life of a CEO, drilling down into common challenges, needs and priorities. From working with executive coaches, to hiring, to driving smarter corporate cultures, CEOs are consistently aiming to reach a sense of balance and focus, and discover ways to maintain motivation. Through their candid answers, they have revealed realities of CEO life that aren’t always discussed.

Gathering information from industry-diverse CEOs

Two hundred CEOs and founders of privately held, venture and growth equity-backed companies chose to contribute their thoughts to our survey. They provided rich details around what makes them tick, what keeps them up at night and what they believe they need to fuel continued success.

Three important insights came into focus after thorough analysis of the responses. Each is a rare “behind-the-curtain” look into the lives of leaders:

1. Leaders find harmony in healthier working and living environments

Society might envision the stereotypical CEO as leading a life dedicated 24/7 to work. However, contemporary founders are hardly all-business, no-nonsense, nose-to-grindstone types. In fact, most indicate a penchant for prioritizing mental and physical health regardless of how hectic their schedules become.

On average, 70 percent of survey participants experience no less than six hours of slumber, 60 percent work out regularly and 48 percent read for pleasure. Plus, 32 percent have executive coaches, more than 30 percent keep appointments with wellness coaches and about a fifth visit therapists. As if this weren’t enough to keep them busy, 93 percent regularly socialize with their industry peers on a monthly basis and some 25 percent of them meet up multiple times per week.

2. Fear of failure keeps CEOs pressing forward

No one wants to fail, especially an individual who has put blood, sweat and tears into one’s company. Is it any wonder, then, that 90 percent of respondents lose sleep over the possibility of not succeeding? From securing funding to making smart onboarding decisions, CEOs have a never-ending list of responsibilities. Accordingly, 49 percent worry about scaling, 49 percent about investor funding and 46 percent about keeping life in balance.

Polishing skills is high on their lists of “must-do” items, with 37 percent of CEOs aiming to improve their public speaking abilities, 37 percent focused on becoming more organized, and 37 percent searching for smarter conflict resolution methods. Of course, improving in the soft skills arena isn’t a CEO’s only goal. More than half want to learn operations or finance, and 37 percent wish they had stronger sales acumen.

In addition to making time to strengthen their expertise in their industries, CEOs work on their lack of soft skills, especially when it comes to  the hiring process. Of course, that can be difficult; 38 percent have a tough time finding sales and customer success leaders, 37 percent think experienced technology and engineering executives are few and far between, and 25 percent expect to spend copious time unearthing operations leaders. Still, CEOs patiently leave nothing to chance. More than 50 percent will make a candidate undergo at least three interview rounds before consideration.

3. CEOs align themselves with experts

Leaders want to put top talent in seats, but their search for allies doesn’t end with in-house executive hires. External relationships are just as important, especially with people who have investing know-how or acumen. A full 79 percent of Norwest 2018 CEO Journey Survey contributors sought outside funding  within the first year of starting their company. To set the stage for meeting future funding goals, they continue to foster deeper connections externally.

What do CEOs want out of an investment partner? Certainly, expertise is a factor, as 47 percent of founders attest. Almost as many sought alignment or the ability for long-term investing. And a third of them look for investors willing to help build their company to new heights by actively playing a role in sales, scaling, networking and other essential initiatives.

The 2018 Norwest Venture Partners CEO Journey Study provided our firm with some  eye-opening insights. Not only does it offer a 360-degree view of the life of a CEO, but it also helps us understand their personal and professional challenges so that we can be more effective in developing and offering the right resources and programs to support them.

For more information, please see our 2018 CEO Journey Study press release.