6 Leadership Tips for First-Time Female CEOs

What happens when you find yourself in a new, traditionally male, position with no clear blueprint?

learn more about Haley Altman

By Haley Altman


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Jumping into a new role is as challenging as it is exciting. There are new skill sets, new workflows and likely new key performance indicators (KPIs) to be measured against. Often, there's also a blueprint for how to execute your new role, and a training path to get you there.

Related: 8 Women Leaders Who Are Disrupting Entrepreneurship

But what happens when you find yourself taking on a new position (whether with a new company, or with your existing employer), with no clear blueprint?

I found myself in this very scenario a few years back -- making the jump from my dream job as a partner at a law firm to a first-time CEO of a legal-tech startup. It all happened in the blink of an eye. And, at the time, I had limited insight into what I had to do, not only to get a startup up and running, but also to make the personnel hires that would allow us to excel -- all while keeping our early customers happy, and prospecting for more.

Fortunately, I've had excellent resources, like backing from a venture studio and the wisdom of other female leaders, at my disposal. But I've still had to learn (and I continue to learn) the leadership skills I needed for being a first-time female CEO, in a role predominantly held by males.

I've compiled my own top six tips for women, like me, looking to take on the role of a female CEO for the very first-time. Here they are:

Don't stop networking.

There's a reason you continue to see this recommendation from leaders: It's crucial to your success. In my own case, I resisted the urge to keep the idea for a legal tech company top secret. I shared my idea with trusted colleagues who ended up connecting me with a venture studio that helped bring my product idea, Doxly, to life. Then, through a networking event, I made a connection with a community leader who introduced us to one of our lead investors in our financing round.

I encourage you, too, to explore a range of networking events not specific to your industry. The more networking you do, the easier it will be to create (and foster) your personal network of potential mentors, employees, business partners or simply like-minded professionals you can consult from time to time. And, to push myself at these events, I set a personal goal to meet one more person than I did at the previous event.

Similarly, I encourage you -- even if you're a CEO -- to seek out a mentor. The objective insight and advice generated from mentorship is impactful, not just in your career, but in your personal development as well.

Related: What Male and Female Leaders Can Learn From Each Other

2. Be laser-focused -- in threes.

Ever feel like you're wearing four different hats while juggling too many priorities to count? I have. And, it quickly became overwhelming. I suggest being hyper-focused on only three critical things that will move you forward on both a macro and micro level. Do this regularly, from each quarter, to each month, to each week.

For example, are you dealing with an above-average percentage of customer churn? For that quarter, one focus should be to evaluate your customer success strategies with the goal of lowering churn.

Is your marketing team stretched a little too thin? If it is, focus on interviewing for a month, with the goal of landing on a specific number of viable candidates. What you focus on will vary, but staying laser-focused in threes will keep you accountable for big needs and give your juggling skills a much-needed break.

3. Always talk to customers.

Customers are the lifeblood of a business, so carve out time every single day to be in communication with them. This doesn't just have to be when you're putting out fires. A simple hello or check-in may also be highly beneficial. Not only will you continue to develop your communication skills, but you will make yourself accessible to those your team has worked so hard to win.

And you will likely uncover a new selling point (or potential roadblock) that can be used in future prospecting.

4. Hire for opposite skill sets.

In my first year as CEO, I had no idea how to recruit or make the right hires, a challenge I hadn't anticipated. I quickly learned that, while I was more inclined to bring on people whose skill sets were similar to mine, that wasn't helpful for my company's growth. Instead, I learned how to identify those whose skill sets complemented my own: I did this by asking the right questions and being self-aware of where I lacked as a leader.

5. Communicate confidently.

I believe that strong communication is a skill that can always be improved, no matter what your experience or title. As a CEO, you will be expected to communicate with a board, your employees, both angry and happy customers, tough prospects, local professionals, partners and more. In all situations, confidence will take you further than big words or highly researched talking points.

In the role of CEO, it's likely you'll be communicating regularly with more men (who communicate differently) than women, so make the effort to hone those particular aspects of your verbal, written and body language communication-styles that may make you come off as anything but confident. Practicing how to speak confidently is an essential skill to shape at those networking events I mentioned.

6. Research regularly.

Never stop learning about your industry and the competitive landscape. You will be expected to be at the forefront of major trends or shifts, and looked to when times are tough; so arm yourself with the research to make decisions. I like to set aside time every morning (blocked off on my calendar) to do nothing but read industry publications, and also take a look at what our direct competitors are up to.

Sure, meetings pop up here and there that take me away from my reading time, but I make a point to reschedule that time for later in the day, no matter what.

Related: 7 Ways Women Leaders Can Excel at Being Their Authentic Selves

These six leaderships tips have proven fundamental in my growth as a first-time female CEO. Though at first I was playing catch-up (having spent my career as a lawyer), I have found the connections I've forged with other CEOs to be invaluable in my transition.

What leadership tips would you share with other first-time female leaders?

Haley Altman

CEO, Doxly

Haley Altman is the co-founder and CEO of Doxly. She has over a decade of experience working on complicated transactions in the corporate, private equity and venture capital verticals. Her practice has extended from the Midwest, at Ice Miller, to the West Coast, at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. Over the years, she has completed thousands of transactions from small-debt transactions to $800 million public-private mergers, opposite attorneys from around the world. In 2016, Altman left Ice Miller to co-found Doxly and transform the legal transaction-management process.

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