The role of CEO / founder in a startup is probably one of the most diverse jobs it is possible to have. You do everything from buying the printer paper, to paying the bills, to developing the strategy. But the diversity is also the reward as you see your whole business grow and appreciate what went into that success. In this series I will consider some of the things I have learned over 35 years in and around startups and share some advice for new CEOs. This month, we look at Leadership, a crucial aspect of any CEOs personality.
As CEO you are the leader of the team. And you must lead. Everyone will be looking to you for direction, confidence, vision, wisdom, logic etc. But also, as leader you are ultimately responsible for the human resource of the company. This can be very time-consuming and as you grow, you will need support. The first company I worked at had around 250 people. And there was an HR Director. No one respected him because of the seemingly illogical outputs from his department, and we wondered why we were spending money on such a senior role. Fifteen years later I became managing director of a 20-person organisation, and I immediately understood! People problems can take up an inordinate amount of management time and having a professional HR manager between you and those problems is vital to keep your mind focused on running the business.
It can be tempting, as founder and CEO of a new business, to think you know everything. It’s your idea, your vision, your baby. And in this temptation, it is possible to hire people who just agree with you, do what you ask and don’t question your decisions. This can be a big mistake. No one knows everything, no one has the complete, optimised solution to the problem. So, your challenge is to hire people smarter than you, in all areas of the business. People who will then challenge, in a positive and productive way, your assumptions, in order to deliver a better product or service to the market. This can be bad for your ego, but better for the business. And as CEO your role is to support your team, fully exploit their skills and experience, and create value for your investors.
As CEO you are the one who is going to have to step up when there is that crucial investor or sales meeting, when a key customer has a real problem that must be fixed, or when there is an HR issue between team members that is disrupting work. Stepping up at the right moment to solve the problem, in whatever area of business, is a vital facet of the CEO of a startup.
Suck It Up
When things go wrong, people let you down, sales fail…. just suck it up and carry on. That’s life!
On the other hand, whenever you have successes, crack open the champagne for the team. The first circuit boards are returned from manufacture, and they work! You close that big sale you’ve been working on for months. The investor who has been dangling cash in front of you finally agrees to come on board. All reasons for celebration. ARM – the Cambridge chip designer whose products are in evey portable device you own – has a wall full of champagne bottles, each one representing a successful new chip being returned from the foundry. It motivates everyone to keep pushing forwards. Do it, do it well and, hopefully, do it often.
As the founder or CEO of a startup one of your main roles is to ‘stand up and be counted’. You are the responsible person for both the good and the bad things that happen. Either way, you need to be visible in your market, with your investors, and with your staff. No hiding your light under a bushel! Also, the buck stops with you. Customer problems, if they cannot be solved down the line, will inevitably end up on your plate. You have to stand up and take it on the chin (and hopefully learn from the experience). As CEO you get all the praise when things go well, and all the crap when they don’t!
Overall, being in a startup is a lot of fun and part of the CEO’s role is to keep morale up. Having a laugh with the team from time to time is to be encouraged, and allowing the team to crack up over a joke is also acceptable.
Finally, whether it’s tea, coffee or beer, startups run on brews. As CEO, make sure supplies are always available to keep your team happy.
There are 63 more ‘Ups’ (Crack up, Free up, Light up, Make up etc) in his book Upstart Ninja: So, you want to be a startup CEO?, and at https://upstart.ninja
David can be reached at [email protected]