What Your Mother Didn’t Tell You About Being A CEO
14 years ago

“Give Me Your Best 10 Minutes On How To Be A Great CEO,” He Said.

A friend who had just accepted the top spot at a software company was on the phone and time was short.  I’ve worked with dozens of first-time CEOs, and the challenges of that job are incredibly unique.  Each industry, sector, geography, and company has its own culture, needs, and opportunities.  What do they all have in common?

My first thought, as usual, is to focus on the most counter-intuitive piece of advice I could think of.  Where does conventional wisdom break down, and why?  What do most people from the outside of the job think is right that turns out to be wrong from the inside of the job?  My friend was taking a job in a start-up with an immature product and fewer than 70 employees.  In this case, I think the biggest trap is the “L” word.  The first thing your mother didn’t tell you about being a CEO is about Leadership.

Every CEO Wants To Be A “Good Leader.”  But Start-Ups Don’t Need “Good Leaders”.

That is, they don’t need the team-building, culture cultivating, morale managing kind.  They need the “shut up and do it my way and if you don’t like it, there’s the door” kind.  Every leadership book I can think of labels the former as “good” and the later as “bad”.  Can you imagine a business school graduate or an HR director describing the qualities of a good leader?  I’m pretty sure that “Stubborn, Micromanaging, and Unilateral” wouldn’t make the list.  Yet those are exactly the qualities that a start-up needs.

In a start-up there are often way too many variables.  You’re dealing with an unknown market, unproven product, uneven team, unproven strategy, and unproven messaging.  Leadership styles that are commonly believed to be “good” often rely on a pre-established foundation of certainty in these areas.  When the problem is known and the team is robust, then open collaboration creates extraordinary results.  When the problem is unknown and the team is small and scrappy, then there must be someone who’s gut feeling is treated as fact.  Who’s unjustifiable positions are taken as reality without (much) push back.  This person is the visionary.   This person is the CEO.

I define a good leader as someone who is creating a future that wouldn’t have happend anyway – with followers.  On a small team with an unknown problem and unproven solutions – the best way to create an uncertain future is by declaring where you are going and how you are going to get there.

Vision Isn’t A Bunch Of Pretty Words

We often hear about the CEO’s job of “holding the vision” and conjure up images of mission statements describing utopian states.  In a start-up, though, the vision is communicated through snap judgements about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  What is ‘good enough’.  What is ‘failure’.  When I see a CEO of a small start-up telling an engineer, “No.  Don’t use that platform.  Use this platform, and use this method.  It’s not up for debate.”, I am seeing a CEO communicate her vision.  When I see a CEO of a small start-up talk to the team about how “We are building a better tomorrow.  We are creating an enabling technology that will change how business is done!”, I am seeing a CEO that is wasting his time.

Don’t Hire A Dragon Slayer To Slay A Dragon You’ve Never Killed Once Yourself.

It’s common sense to hire to compensate for your weaknesses.  Frequently a new CEO will be weak in one of the major operational areas like Sale, Marketing, Engineering, Manufacturing, or Finance.  It is vital to the survival of a start-up that the CEO resists the urge to hire VPs in the areas she is weak for as long as possible.  Your job as the CEO of a start-up is the ‘crack the code’ in each of these areas.  You must make it work.  Once you’ve successfully sold a few lighthouse accounts, built a product that customers can use, and made some net margin, then you can hire VPs to be extraordinary at the things you are mediocre at.

The danger of hiring too quickly is that you may be really just subcontracting a problem that’s too hard for you to solve.  If its too hard for you to solve, then you wont know who to hire and how to tell if they’re doing a good job.  You are just hoping that they are more experienced in that field than you so they can figure it out.  They wont.

Hope is the enemy of a CEO and a start-up.  Any key piece of the business left up to hope will very likely be the reason the company fails.   Be rigorous about finding where you are hoping that someone else is going to do something you are afraid you can’t do or don’t want to do.  Then step up and do it yourself.

As the company grows and becomes established, then you will again have a huge challenge on your hands.  Because everything that made you a good CEO will now work against you.  One day you will wake up and realize that Leadership (the inspirational kind) is sorely lacking and you need to train yourself and your employees to transition from dictatorship to a loose federation of autonomous groups.   But that’s not for a few years…

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