The Default CEO
Many tech startups are founded by two people — a technical person (i.e. the CTO) and a business person (i.e. the CEO). Jobs and Wozniak are the archetypical pairing most think about. There are obviously varying degrees of technical competence, but the CTO at their core knows how to build. It’s a clear undisputed demarcation of qualifying for the role. If you don’t know how to build, you can’t be the CTO. To assume the role, the CTO had to undertake, in most cases, years of training through a combination of theoretical and practical experience and prove themselves capable. You can’t fake code.
Contrast that to the CEO. Since most can’t code, the CEO is often made CEO by default. They’re expected to handle all of the other things, which at a young startup, is a bunch of miscellaneous tasks — incorporating the company, managing orders, talking to customers, diligencing the market, etc., while the better CEOs have other special skills they can utilize from their prior experience such as product design, UX, etc.
One role is based on their ability to do or know something whereas the other is based on their ability to NOT do or know something. And it is the latter person whose role is most important; the person who is the ultimate decision maker. Sounds crazy, right?! Yet this is the case with many companies.
So if you’re the CEO I described, are you a complete fraud?
Well maybe…but here’s the secret. No one teaches you how to become a CEO. There’s no CEO degree you can get. You can only learn by being in the role. So how do you become a great first-time CEO? Here are some thoughts from my time being one and observing others:
“I know that I know nothing.” -Socrates. By far the biggest piece of advice is to be humble. Nothing else will work unless you accept that like Socrates, you know nothing. If you’re not humble, you won’t feel as strong of a desire to get better. You’ll be overconfident and more likely to continue making mistakes. Your brashness won’t engender respect from your team or cofounder. Your belief that the CEO title makes you the boss, will make it hard for you to trust others. Having the title of CEO doesn’t mean shit.
Know the rules of the game. Break down the responsibilities of a CEO like a set of skills to masters. Being an effective CEO is a combination of decision making, data analysis, communication (written and verbal), sales, strategy, product, UX, recruiting, and management. Make no mistake, these are skills just as data structures, algorithms, and software design are for an engineer.
Learn quickly. If you recognize that you don’t know shit, the difference between the people who sink vs. swim is those who have a deep thirst for self-improvement and a desire to learn. They know their shortcomings and constantly find ways to improve themselves. They talk to experts, they learn from peers, they read, take courses, study the masters (Bezos, Jobs, Collisons). They’re voracious learners.
Get experience. The fastest path to learning is by doing, but inevitably, you’re going to screw up a lot. That’s ok, so long as it’s not a fatal mistake. Continue to do, reassess, and assuming you’re humble and a quick learner, you’re going to get better. Better yet, get some experience before jumping into entrepreneurship. It goes against the romantic narrative of dropping out of school and becoming an entrepreneur, but the best founders have a fair amount of experience and just as important, a deep network of people they can recruit from their prior companies.
Work harder. What you can’t make up in skill and experience, in an early stage startup, you can compensate partially by sheer work ethic. You’re qualifying leads, reaching out to candidates, talking to customers, etc. Hustle can go a long way.
Hire people better than you. Again, if you’re humble, you’ll realize that you don’t have to make every single decision. In fact, the activity that gives you the most leverage is recruiting. Hire people who are better than you at the specific set of activities they specialize in and let them serve as your teachers. You get the triple benefit of improving the overall company, learning, and giving you time back to work on other things. Unblock them and get the hell out of their way. This piece of advice also applies to your role. If the time ever comes when you need to replace yourself for the betterment of the company, understand the rules apply to you just as it does the engineering manager you hired.
Create value for the company. Especially early on at a company, being a “company builder” holds very little value. Instead, pick a lane where you can add tangible value. Sales, BD, Product, Marketing, etc. Learn to have a specialty. The side benefit is by keeping busy adding value, you’ll be less of a distraction to others, as my mom says, idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
Get an executive coach. One of the biggest regrets most founders have in retrospect is not investing in an executive coach. I understand that this can seem like a luxury that most companies can’t afford early on, but if it means your team can perform twice as better, it’s well worth the investment. These days it’s easy to find a great coach on sites like Sounding Board. If you can’t afford a coach, an alternative is to find a group of peers to lean on and use as a sounding board. Not only will it help you with explicit tactics, but sharing in your struggles will also relieve a lot of the loneliness you feel as you realize everyone has the same issues.
2 ears, 1 mouth. An obvious tell of an inexperienced CEO is their inclination to always want to speak and be the authoritative voice. Wrong! Leaders listen, they have awareness. They know the real job of a CEO is to serve, not to be the one ordering people around. If you thought being CEO was being the boss, pick a new profession.
Be a good and decent human first. Whether you know it or not, as CEO you set the culture with your behavior. If you’re callous and rude, or lack integrity, your team will follow suit. If you focus on performance and set a high bar, your team will follow suit. If you focus on diversity and inclusion, your team will follow suit. Get the picture. The thing about culture is that it compounds and hardens over time. So be judicious and intentional.
This list could have been over 100 bullet points, but these were the ones that I thought were most relevant. What other ones could you think of? I’d be curious to know. Let me know in the comments below. Thanks!