What does it really mean to be the CEO of a start-up?


Last week, we talked about the ONE quality you need to have as a manager. But i didn’t tell you what it really means to manage and be a leader. Well, that’s basically because operating a business is like deliberately putting all the irrational people you know in the same building and living with them for most of your day. Any resemblance with Arkham asylum is purely coincidental! I know, you didn’t sign on for that, but please, do not let the Joker go!

Start-ups are messy

I don’t care what your roommates told you about cleaning up the garage, a startup should be messy! Actually, the messier the better. If your start up is not messy, it means you are not innovating fast enough — having too many processes will keep you from being really creative and “breaking” things. For a founder, it means that everyday (more like every 10 minutes), a new problem will knock on your door. Congratulations, you are now an ER doctor. Your role is to screen the problems and decide if they are colds (something that will go away on its own — do not allocate time for it) or if they are life threatening conditions (treat symptoms AND root causes). Diagnosis is key. You didn’t see the brain tumor? Too late, the patient is dead.

Clark Kent 2.0

By now you must have saved your startup approximately a million times. You are a superhero. And like most of them, you need a cover story. So you chose to be an editor in your civilian life (i know, Clark is not an editor but this is the closest i could find!). The main mission of an editor — i guess, i’ve never been one — is to simplify and clarify.

Simplicity

To simplify basically means to cut things out. Take a red pen and scratch the paper. Skip the fat, keep the lean muscle. I remember a Rabbi explaining to me the importance of omitting. The Tables of the Law were just two tables… until Somebody removed part of the rocks to engrave the words (each letter was formed by a piece of rock that went away → the empty space created letters, letters created words, words created meaning. It is like the space between words: it gives sense to a sentence, if not, it would just be a infinite sequence of letters).

Simplicity is complexity resolved

Simplicity is a proof of mastery. “What is conceived well is expressed clearly, and the words to say it come easily” — Nicolas Boileau. Nothing is too complex. You can change the world in 140 characters and move millions of product with less than 50 characters: Think Different, 1000 songs in your pocket. Simplify as much as you can! The more you simplify the better people will perform .

Clarity

Then the editor will pinpoint the incoherence, the ambiguity and ask the writer to clarify, rework. Questions/directions will help the writer have more empathy (understand what was not clear enough, how a reader might have understood his work etc.) and allow her/him to refocus the story. Focus is really important. The whole company needs to speak with one voice. That voice will allow you to allocate resources more easily.

Your job is to use less red ink everyday (this is a good way to measure your communication skills). You have to teach the voice of the company in order to ensure consistency. After all, most of the work is done by the writers, though, you are responsible for everything. There is no excuse when you are CEO.


I have good and bad news. The good news is that you won’t be doing the work yourself. You will have to delegate, employ people to do the actual work. The bad news is that first, you need to pay them. Second, you need to manage them. And third, you need to work for them.

Cultivate multiple personalities

Your management style needs to be customized based on your employee and the task at hand. This is basically the message behind the Task-Relevant Maturity model (Andrew Grove). Depending on the level of education, experience, personal skills, maturity etc. the employee has relative to a specific task, your management will have to range from providing a clear and highly structured set of instructions to perfect freedom. You might give your Chef total freedom to update the menu (and create new dishes) but might have to coach him thoroughly on more business oriented tasks (supply chain management etc.).

Let them be

Mistakes are good if they are benign (low impact). Your Chef has the wonderful idea to create a dish with an item really hard to source? It is worth letting her/him make the mistake. First, because it is an idea that gets her/him excited about her/his job. But also because it is a good learning opportunity (learn how to better select ideas).

More is not always better

When you hire people, you don’t automatically get more things done. People are like munitions. If you have only one barrel, you are not going to shoot more. What you need is to add more barrels. A barrel can take an idea all the way down from its infancy to its delivery (Keith Rabois). Of course, barrels are really hard to find. To identify them, you need to test your employees. Give them a simple task to handle, from start to finish. If they managed it, great, add some more complexity… until you reach the breaking point (everybody has a breaking point, even superheroes — that’s why the Avengers exist). Therefore, you only need to hire when there is a gap between the growth rate of the company and the growth rate of the individual learning curve.

Being your employee’s employee

Focus. People can only do one (or two) thing(s) great. Michael Jordan was an amazing basketball player. Baseball on the other hand… Your employees should spend their entire time on one or two types of issues. That is how you crack the code to solving A+ problems and create breakthroughs. Your job, as a founder and leader, is to provide them with the tools they need to build solutions and take everything else off their plate — so they can focus. A coach doesn’t get playing time. Instead, (s)he gives her/his players all the tools they need (training, strategy, tactics etc.) to defeat their opponent and organizes everything else so they just have to focus on that problem (laundry is done, meals are cooked, homework are written etc.). You expect the best from your employee. You need to give them yours.

Stay tuned, the season is not over yet…