7 tips for startup founders-turned-CEOs on how to do it allClair Byrd | May 23, 2022
This is the second in a two-part series on first-time startup founders-turned-CEOs. Read part one—a primer on the first-time-CEO job description—here.
If there’s a single truth about being a startup founder, it’s this: the job is constantly changing.
You go from having a great idea and building an MVP to suddenly needing to be a marketer, salesperson, fundraiser, and HR lead all at once.
At every stage of your founder’s journey, you’ll be challenged to grow in countless areas. Going from a startup founder to the CEO of your own company is a big one. Here are our seven tips for managing that inflection point—without losing your mind.
Get really good at strategic time AND energy management.
Building a product is not an easy task. Leading a company is even harder. Burnout lurks at every corner. Time management is one thing, but as a CEO with the same number of hours as everyone else, you’re going to have to become adept at managing your energy too.
Learn how to delegate, figure out when you’re most productive (and protect that time), and automate what you can to focus on your highest leverage activities. Note that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to what “highest leverage” means: some CEOs are most productive through meetings, while others are most productive with as much deep work time as possible. Some CEOs swear by early morning start times, while others like Spotify’s Daniel Ek, don’t start work until 10:30. Work to your (and your team’s) strengths and preferences.
“You can only do so much. There are five more projects you want to do, but you pick the three that are really going to matter, and you try to do those really well, and you don’t even try to do the others.” —Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Meta
You set the culture and values of the company. Be extremely intentional about it. Founders not used to leadership and its implications often shy away from defining standards and expectations, but culture is created through your actions anyway. This is your chance to reflect and define what your company culture really stands for. Be mindful of mixed signals. Don’t say you value autonomy and then micromanage everyone. Let your values be an extension of what already exists, not a rehaul of an impossible ideal that you don’t really care about. Authenticity wins over mass appeal especially when people are increasingly wary of performative culture.
“Companies need to change the way they manage and lead to match the way that modern humans actually work and live. We’re trying to re-craft culture in a way that really matches that. I think that 99 percent of companies are kind of stuck in the ‘90s when it comes to their culture.” —Brian Halligan, CEO of Hubspot
Define, communicate, and evaluate, over and over again.
Want to know how to maintain a strong company culture, even in the midst of rapid changes? You say it a lot, and then make sure your actions match up to your words. Despite a culture of too much information, studies show that high-performing teams communicate more frequently and openly, as well as share both positive and negative emotions. (Source: How to Build a High-Performing Team, Front)
It’s so simple that we forget how much of an impact clear communication (and alignment) can have. Get in front of assumptions and be proactive. Schedule it if you have to. This is not a say-it-once, forget-about-it situation.
“Communication is a very important skill for founders—in fact, I think this is the most important rarely-discussed founder skill.” —Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI
Create psychological safety for your team.
Psychological safety is a key ingredient of high-performing teams because it means more innovation, growth and autonomy, which means less pressure on you as the leader to be the sole driving force of growth. In a fast-growing environment like an early stage startup, this is the kind of team you want: a team that doesn’t just do what they’re told, but can think critically and take calculated risks to take your direction and build that flywheel we’ve been talking about.
“We learned that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams. Psychological safety was far and away the most important.” —Julia Rozovsky, Director of People Operations at Google
Become a master at giving feedback.
You’re now the chief mentor and guide of everyone you end up hiring, even if you’re not necessarily managing everyone. If you want to hire and keep great people, you’re looking at people who have the drive to do a great job. Learn how to give kind, clear, and constructive feedback, and you’ll build a better team and product by proxy.
“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” —Bill Gates, founder and former CEO of Microsoft
Don’t just do; listen. This goes for both users and employees as things start to grow faster and bigger, and more degrees of separation come between you and almost everyone else except peers and fellow execs. Among the things you should proactively carve time out for, speaking and listening to people who can tell you what’s really going on is up there. At an early stage company, it’s risky not to keep your pulse on this. How else are you going to properly connect the dots for everyone else?
“Listen at all levels. Some of the best ideas come from those on the front lines.” —Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens
And yes, you can get help. No one expects you to know everything, but you are expected to be proactive about your shortcomings and to start tackling them as early as possible. Tap your network for executive leadership coaching or put some time and energy into learning important leadership skills sooner rather than later. Start now.
“The learning curve of being a great executive is a lot less like learning the guitar, and a lot more like skydiving. It’s the kind of thing you should not do without an instructor. A coach is probably one of the highest returns on investment anyone can do with their attention.” —Tobias Lutke, CEO of Shopify
Everyone’s looking at you now
“Pay attention to your own actions —the little things you say and do— as well as what behaviors you are rewarding and discouraging. All of it works together to tell the story of what you care about and how you believe a great team should work together.” —Julie Zhuo, former VP of Product Design at Facebook, co-founder of Sundial
Being a CEO is a huge privilege. It’s not enough to look at models of leaders of the past and think: “That’s good enough because that’s how they did it.” Not anymore. CEOs are and should be held accountable to their teams, partners, customers, and communities. And it takes a lot more than charisma and vision to do the job well.
Read part one in this series, “Hello, first-time startup CEOs: here’s your job description.”
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