No.1 - Dimitris Nikolakis - Transitioning to CEO

This is the first interview - part of a series - investigating the challenges and joys of transitioning to a CEO role. Dimitris Nikolakis, CEO Druckfarben Romania since 2014, has been kind enough to answer our questions.

All interviews are moderated by Radu Manolescu, Founder and Managing Partner, K.M.Trust and lead of the Values Driven Exponential Leadership Programme.


How was it before and during transition? What were the challenges?

Making the transition to the CEO role is filled with difficulty and is a long process prior to assuming such position.  The biggest challenge to me is the preparation of the mindset.  It started by realizing what value I bring, allowing myself to be exposed to the necessary coaching and mentoring, refining my leadership skills necessary for the next steps. 

The chances of succeeding are increased when one realizes that the transition is a continuous process, even long after assuming the CEO position.  Mentally, one has to be ready to accept, but also to possess the humility and patience, to learn from others and from own experiences.  I knew that I was going to be involved in broad overall responsibilities.  The key is how authentically as a leader, you can empower other executives to work for the common goal not through authority but voluntary engagement, without first-hand knowledge of their disciplines.

How did you feel during those transitioning times?

It was hard to separate the mixture and tangling of feelings.  Coming from outside, I had to learn fast how the company operated and functioned applying the appropriate filters.  This generated additional pressure, but it was also an advantage. I was stepping in, not biased from the internal forces, with a clean view. 

Initially I felt at a loss with a lot of anxiety as the responsibility of leading the whole company started to settle in. Time management and effective delegation started to become much more important than ever before, simply because one person cannot run a company by getting deeply involved in all aspects of its operation. 

Showing self-confidence in the team that surrounded me was the key to keep walking the path.  It was a stunning realization that I needed to accept depending on others in areas in which previously in my career I had excelled.  

Another area that generated mixed feelings had to do with my leadership skills; very soon I realized, and I believe avoided, the trap of giving orders. With so many issues to tackle, new CEOs have the tendency, if not the urgency, to start issuing such orders. I felt this urgency from the anxiety to show quick wins, but I am a firm believer that giving orders in such circumstances diminishes your power as a leader; such behavior promotes resentment and defensiveness.  By avoiding this practice, I was able to increase my self-confidence and that of my team and at the same time counterbalanced my mind forces of self-doubt. 

 What were the aspects that brought you most satisfaction?

The pleasure came from the excitement and drive to impact through engagement and strategic intent the company and its employees. 

Satisfaction came, when upon the presentation of the strategic path, I felt from my direct reports that we provided the sense of direction they were looking for empowering them to perform. But most importantly, coming from the genesis of my leadership beliefs, I made sure they contributed in such outcome making them an integral part of the equation and process.

The ability to share my knowledge and experience had an impact to many more people than before. I was in control in laying down the parameters to allow transformative minds within the company to develop; this gave me immeasurable satisfaction, which would not have been felt if I wasn’t doing this genuinely.  Allowing the shift in purpose to impact our proposals and actions ensured that all involved adopted the same sense of strategic direction.

What were the mistakes you would have avoided looking back?

I do not tend to see them as mistakes but experiences that I learned to stand up from their outcome.  Soon after the initial phase passes there will be a reconciliation phase.  The prevailing challenge in my view is when the new executive fails to reconcile the expectations with the operational reality.  It will have a tremendous toll on you and your ability to concentrate and focus on implementation.Ignoring this aspect will probably derail your strategic plan in terms of timelines affecting the leading indicators, which are the foundation creators for future success.

The opportunity though always is within such challenges and you can find it by focusing on the leading indicators that are important: customer satisfaction, vocal culture creation, employee training and coaching, cash flow, gross margins that will create the stepping stones necessary to reach the lagging indicators successfully, such as turnover, net margins, EBITDA, profitability and shareholders value. 

What have you learned from this experience, what have been the key insights?

I have grown as a professional and as a leader.  I have seen the power of impacting the people around by making them believe in themselves and what we can do together. I have increased the acceptance level within me and realized that the paradox of balancing short-term pressures and results, while keeping the long-term direction of the strategic path developed, is not as hard as it sounds.  One has to incorporate the relative term “time” in the personal performance equation.

The challenge is to make your peers (stakeholders, board), accept that the element of time is a necessary stabilizing factor when incorporated in the plans, but it turns into a destructive power when not.

I have learned that employees will perform at their peek and stay engaged if you believe in them and their abilities. When you offer them a purpose as a leader rather than simply fulfilling their needs.  Customizing their motivators and linking them to purpose is the key and I believe I have done that effectively in my tenure as a CEO.

 If you would now mentor someone, what would you say to him/her?

I would ask him/her this question first:  “What did you learn about yourself the last year?”  It is another way to address your weaknesses and increase your self-awareness, but also bring out the spirit from within you that allows you to move mountains - determination.  Clarify your thoughts, and lead yourself through the choices to a course of action that is completely your own. Instead of an immediate answer, find and walk the path towards the solution hidden in the very tendency to give that answer. You will learn and grow walking the path and you need this learning and understanding process to occur prior to reaching the destination.  Be humble and always act with integrity.  Be honest, direct, and genuine. People might not like what you have to say all the time, but being direct and straightforward saves energy and pays off. 

Integrity always catches up with you and you want it to be what characterizes you not what ruins your future chances.  This is what I say to myself on a daily basis.


Now, over to you: what do you think of Dimitris’ experience? Is there anything in it that you found particularly useful? Enlightening? We’d love to hear from you!

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