So you launched your company, started your startup and find you are now a CEO! awesome! best job in the world – or is it?
Not everyone is cut out to be Founder and CEO of their company, many founders are brilliant at “doing the things their company does” but have no experience basis or skills for feeding, watering and loving the company in a broader context. Things like governance, tax, risk, leases, contracts, staff management, firing someone, strategy, partnerships, sales, resilience, maturity of process, investment, cleaning the office, buying the toilet paper (sorry I shouldn’t start the real list here) are often foreign to new CEO’s and sadly not many of those things listed are much fun. As CEO you don’t have to do all of these things but you are responsible for the doing of them all so need to understand, have a plan for and be across all of these dimensions of your business – and so many more.
Here are a few (maybe harsh) realities to help you realise what you are experiencing isn’t unusual – you are not alone – and to let you know once you have accepted them you will have the best job in the world! I am not saying the easiest, most fun, awesome job in the world note just the best. It’s satisfying beyond description to see your company grow and change around you and if that happens to plan to reach the founders dilemma point – am I the right person to take my company to the next step or do I need to bring in someone who is better than me as CEO?
No one else really understands what it’s like
You have probably read the cliche that a CEO’s life is lonely, it is, accept it. It might not feel like it in those early years and you might be lucky enough to have a business partner or two who share some of the load and an awesome engaged team but there comes a time as you grow and scale where you as CEO need to be the bigger person, the strategic one, or the one cutting costs or making the hard decisions. You can consult and you can discuss but the decision is yours and the consequences yours to own which is where the lonely bit comes into play. Your team “think” they know what you do – believe me they don’t! none of them have had sleepless nights wondering how to pay that massive bill, or how to fire that under performing team member or preparing to battle with a customer who is threatening to sue you. They don’t understand what it’s like and have no reason to until they walk in your shoes someday.
Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote’s description (Page 10 of the slide share at the bottom of this blog) is indicative of the view many people hold starting a company – “People have this vision of being the CEO of a company they started and being on top of the pyramid... What it’s really like: everyone else is your boss – all of your employees, customers, partners, users, media are your boss. I’ve never had more bosses and needed to account for more people… if you want to exercise power and authority over people, join the military or go into politics. Don’t be an Entrepreneur”.
He is so right! you hold the responsibility but you also serve your staff, customers, partners, media etc etc. It’s a challenging balance to maintain over time. My advice talk to your advisers and other Owner / Found CEO’s you know, they have been there before and will have great war stories, they won’t judge you for asking they will be happy to help you get through the challenge you are facing.
It’s OK to be a control freak
You don’t have to be a control freak to be a CEO but it certainly helps – a lot. Being a control freak is protecting your business, it’s not a state of mind or an excuse, it’s plain and simple – the only way to protect your business as it grows. Your team – lovely and passionate as they are – won’t hold your vision or necessarily share your commitment to cost, quality and time. They don’t have their businesses (or houses) on the line. If you’re not comfortable or happy then your customer won’t be, you need to ensure the product out the door is one you can stand by and you need to ensure it is on time and on cost.
This of course opens the trust people to do their jobs door. So like the balance I talked about above you need balance here too. The formula for success is Alignment + Accountability = Autonomy – providing clear context and constraints, ensure people know what they are accountable for while enabling Autonomy within those context and constraints. Not an easy balance to strike and it takes time but worth pursuing, if you suddenly wade in and move to command and control trust will break down quickly and you will be in the middle of every deliverable which isn’t sustainable.
My advice – act as product owner, provide the vision, context and constraints and put peer review processes in place to provide your team with the Autonomy they desire within the Accountability and Alignment you require. But stay involved, be the product owner, be engaged, know all the balls being juggled so that when someone drops theirs you can ensure it’s picked up (I’m not saying you do the picking up). It’s hard tempering Control with Alignment and Autonomy and is a hard hard journey to Accountability – I am committed to finding the secret formula here, will share when I do.
The cartoon below did tickle my fancy.
You need to network your butt off
The CEO’s role has changed in the last 20 years, no longer some guy (I use the term due to stereotypes) who sat in the biggest office on the highest floor and only took meetings with the most important customers or his direct reports far away from the action. CEO’s now are visible, accessible, social networkers – social networkers in the online and the in person sense. I read an interesting infographic recently with stats on the relationship between a CEO’s social profile and it’s company profile – it claims that 49% of corporate reputation is attributable to the CEO and that social CEO’s lead companies with higher reputations status wise. Customers like to know who they are spending their money with and the who extends to the CEO as much as the product and service on many occasions.
Social Media Networking – we all know that social media helps us build a conversation with an audience, for CEO’s this audience includes the same stakeholders as those we answer to, employees, customers, partners, suppliers, media etc and expands to potential employees, potential customers, potential suppliers etc. Social media provides a mechanism to give a human face to your company.
My advice on getting into social media networking – LinkedIN is an important and accessible social media network for CEO’s to engage in conversations with, share content, create a community. Try stepping up your activity on LinkedIN first before stepping into other platforms, join some relevant groups and participate in conversations providing thought leadership, post blogs and content from your company on your profile, share the content of others in your community and watch the engagement happen.
In Person Networking – unless you have created a viral game like that bird one you will need to hustle to get customers, investors, advisors and staff which means you need to network, network, network. It’s hard, small talk is hard, people can be boring and sadly some are social vampires. However if you’re not out there telling your story and making the pitch you may never meet that one person who will introduce you to that one person who will take your business to the next level. Your network of other CEO’s is also valuable as mentors, supporters and contacts.
My advice on In Person Networking – know what your elevator pitch is, have a few good questions up your sleeve, go with a buddy so you can work a room together and remember you are there to hustle not stand in a corner, you never know who you might meet at what event so make an effort to go to many.
Perseverance and fortitude to conclude
I love my role don’t get me wrong, it’s hard work and again to coin a phrase from Phil Libin “If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you will actually get some flex time to be honest. You’ll be able to work any 24 hours a day you want!” demonstrating work/life balance is challenging in your companies early years. Upshot is as your company grows you need to grow, your skills and experience will change alongside the issues and complexity you face within your business. If you are committed to being the CEO your company deserves – Perseverance and Fortitude need to be in your vocabulary, never take your eye off the ball and never give up and it will come together and you will see the benefits of your efforts. If however your business has outgrown you and your capability think hard about bringing someone else in, you still have a place and a role to play it might not be CEO forever.
Below is a slideshare if you haven’t launched yet that provides some more insight into the reality of life as a founder and owner. Happy sharing, Vic.
New to my blog, you can read more about me here: About Victoria