This is the first in a two-part series on first-time startup founders-turned-CEOs, and how to navigate this evolution. Read part two here.
You don’t get a handbook when you become CEO.
The closest you’ll get is heading to the management aisle of a bookstore or reading through the Twitter-verse for advice doled out in 280 characters or less. You’ll see plenty on what not to do as a leader, all while trying to keep in mind that the internet is a small slice of the population—one with an overabundance of people selling hot takes for eyeballs and likes.
The reality of leadership is messy, gritty, mostly quiet—the work that powers an organization and its people taking place almost entirely behind-the-scenes, kind of like building a product.
Let’s see what CEOs have to say about what they really do.
Zachary Perret, founder-turned-CEO of Plaid, recently tweeted:
The answers included “crying in a corner” to mParticle CEO Michael Katz’s succinctly bucketed “People, Product, Revenue.”
Most responses were somewhat vague (what is “Alignment”?). Probably the most in-depth view of what a CEO actually does comes courtesy of Sam Corcos, co-founder and CEO of Levels, who still manages to read two books every week and has since 2013.
It might be a given that as CEO, you’re responsible for making decisions that ensure your company keeps going, and that undoubtedly means revenue. But there are so many other pieces involved in building a successful company.
With an endless to-do list and increasing demands on your time and attention, let’s start with a clear view of what you’re not and what you are, an especially handy primer if you’re a founder-turned-CEO still getting used to a brand new worldview.
What a startup CEO is—and what it isn’t
You’re no longer the primary builder/operator.
This is doubly true if you’ve got a COO but true even if you don’t, now that you have a team building with you.
That means you need to learn how to let go. Ever heard that the common early startup hack/tenet/philosophy that you should do things that don’t scale? Exactly. Lots of founders have, which is a great thing when you’re building a product and trying to gain traction, but a new skill set is required when you step into the role of CEO leading people.
To make space for these new skills, you need to let go of some things. What got you here isn’t going to get you there. You’re a decision maker, and to make good decisions, you need to stop doing most other things you’ve been used to doing, while being ready to do whatever you need to, when you need to do it.
You’re the boss… but you’re not really the boss anymore.
With a board of directors and investors, you’re more like a partner serving a greater purpose of company growth not just for your sake, but for the sake of the money that people have invested in your company for a future return. There’s a big shift that needs to happen here.
It’s not just about what you feel like doing because you’re the boss calling the shots. You’re now responsible for a lot of money that’s on the line. That goes for your employees too. You’re responsible for their jobs. Your job? To keep things healthy and growing, not to satisfy your founders’ ego. Your company doesn’t belong to you anymore, you’re just one of the main beneficiaries of its growth, growth that you serve.
You are, however, the chief salesperson and evangelist.
The product may speak for itself, but your company doesn’t. You speak for it. You’re the face, voice, internal and external compass of your company as a brand, product, and culture. Who you are and what you do and say is inherently linked to your company in a way that can’t really be separated.
Here’s the rest of your job, laid out across three primary functions:
The startup CEO’s job description
Strategy and roadmap
Your role may not necessarily be to set the roadmap yourself, but to help your team make decisions about their strategies and roadmaps—to make sure it all works together and that nothing is blocking your team from getting there.
At early stage companies, this means defining a strong vision of what priorities are and making sure it is communicated clearly and constantly so finer strategic decisions integrate and serve that larger vision. You need to be a great listener of users, the market, and yes, your team too, who probably have insight into areas of the business you are now more removed from. There are a lot of moving parts: you’re the connector of dots.
Culture and values
Everyone’s looking to you not just for strategic direction, but for cues about how to do what they’re doing. Culture isn’t what you say you are and what your “Jobs” page says, it’s what you do and how you do it.
Whatever your company stands for, make it clear both internally and externally. Don’t think you have a “culture” yet? You do, whether it’s intentional or not. You’ve already started to define this through your actions. Operate on the assumption that employees actually care less about your product than you think. Culture is your competitive advantage as a company, not your product. And it starts (and continues) with you.
Hiring and team-building
Most early stage companies don’t start out with a Chief People Officer or HR. So add that to your job title. It’s probably the most important part of your role for as long as you’re doing it.
We split the way companies grow into product-led, sales-led, and community/audience-led but all companies are really people-led. Learn as much as you can about how to identify talent, how to attract talent and how to retain talent. Don’t let this be secondary; a company is the sum of its people. Your ability to build a company now rests in who you hire.
Read part two, about how startup founders-turned-CEOs can manage this transition without going crazy, here.