What CEOs Do

Sometimes people ask me about what the CEO does.

Before doing this job I had a visions of CEOs being sort of like military generals, motivating the troops before they went into battle. There was a lot of bravado and barking commands in my head.

The problem was that this didn’t seem like me. My style was more to listen and find consensus. I didn’t feel confident giving orders to a large group. I was more comfortable building things. Could I even be a CEO?

Later I realized that there are all sorts of CEOs, and many different styles can work. More importantly, it was better to double down on your strengths rather than trying to be something that you’re not. Me trying to be the military general was going to come across incongruent and awkward. Instead, I could embrace my strengths (listening, building consensus, writing). Finding successful role models that match your style also helps. Page, Zuckerberg, Musk, and Gates are all classic “nerd” CEOs.

The basic job of the CEO is three things:

  1. Set a clear vision
    Get everyone rowing in the same direction.
  2. Get the right people on the bus
    Recruit and retain a great team and board.
  3. Make sure there is enough money in the bank
    Ensure the company is financially healthy.

Once these areas are taken care of, many CEOs specialize in one area where they have a strength.

Types of CEOs.

  1. Product focused CEO
    Make the best products. Innovate. Be the easiest to use. Have a technological breakthrough. You’ll tend to spend a lot of your time internally working with the product team instead of externally doing media, investor meetings, etc.
    An example here would be Larry Page or Elon Musk.
  2. Operations focused CEO
    You’re focused on process, scaling, and ruthless efficiency. You’ll spend time holding your vast network of people accountable, tweaking the playbook, and running things by the numbers.
    An example here is probably Travis Kalanick at Uber.
  3. Sales focused CEO
    You’ll spend your time on the road evangelizing the product to customers, and building relationships. You’re the rainmaker, bringing in new deals and revenue.
    An example here is probably Aaron Levie at Box.
  4. Marketing focused CEO
    You’ll spend your time telling your company’s message (over and over again) to employees, candidates, media, government, and the world to create the change you want to see in the world. You inspire.
    An example here is probably Brian Chesky at Airbnb.

Note: Consider the description of any of those example CEOs as an oversimplification. They each do much more than that one thing.

Each approach is valid, and one is not necessarily better than the other. Great CEOs have a variety of areas where they are competent, but they choose to focus on where they are excellent. Then they build a team that complements them.

For me, I’m primarily a product focused CEO. When I go to bed at night and when I wake up in the morning, I think about the customer experience. The product is never good enough. It often causes me physical pain to think about the state of our product (when it’s slow, buggy, inconvenient, unavailable in your country, etc). It’s an obsession.

People sometimes are surprised to see that I decline media interviews, investor meetings, and public speaking invitations. While I can do these things, I don’t get energy from it. And there are people on our team who are better at it than me.

Hopefully this gives a good sense of how to think about the different types of CEOs.

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