Look, everyone wants to be CEO. But very few entrepreneurs understand exactly what that job entails.
Seems easy enough: Make the decisions, take the credit. But there are about a million little tasks a CEO has to do to make the company successful. And all of those little tasks tend to get in the way of the one job he or she has to be focused on.
I’ve been CEO of my own business several times. At other startups, I’ve been on the executive team, directly reporting to the CEO. I’ve made my mistakes. I’ve gotten in over my head. I’ve learned hard lessons.
Let’s start with those million little tasks. I’ll be brief.
Yes, a CEO has to make the executive decisions on everything from company culture to customer happiness to fiscal responsibility. These decisions are never, ever binary. They’re never a matter of choosing Option A vs. Option B. They’re usually not even a takeout menu of a dozen or so well thought-out choices, where you pick an entree, maybe add a side item.
In fact, the primary decision a CEO is often faced with is: Which horrible raging dumpster-fire of a problem do we try to tackle first?
And you never get to choose just one fire to put out. If you get to choose at all — because usually the choice is forced by external factors, like money. Or the board. Or investors. Or some part of your system exploding.
When you do land on which problem to solve, the solution is often a matter of trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing. You have to make a lot of assumptions, take a bunch of guesses, and fill in blanks with best case, worst case, and really awful case scenarios.
And at the end of the day you GIVE credit, you TAKE blame.
All for those three little letters on your LinkedIn profile.
But while these million paper cuts are something every CEO has to deal with, they aren’t your job. You have only one job.
Make everyone around you better.
Before I get into how to do that, I was reminded of why this is true last week while watching the NBA Finals. You don’t have to follow basketball to get this analogy, just know that the Golden State Warriors were physically and metaphysically crushing the Cleveland Cavaliers despite the best efforts of arguably the best player we’ve ever seen in LeBron James.
The Golden State Warriors are a juggernaut, a true Superteam, composed of three, possibly four future Hall of Famers. But while any one of them can go off and lead the team to victory on any given night— they have a singular leader, a CEO, and it isn’t the coach Steve Kerr.
Yes, the coach is the one solving all the micro-problems, keeping three, maybe four, maybe a dozen egos in check, and setting them up to succeed. But when it’s time for execution, actually putting points on the board and wins in the column, that comes down to someone else.
During Game 3, somewhere in the middle of the second quarter, with the Cavaliers building a 13-point lead. One of the commentators, and honestly I forget who said it because it took a few minutes for it to stick, noted that Steph Curry, Warrior point guard (and two-time MVP), was having a horrible night. The reason the Warriors were only down by 13 (and not a lot more) was because another Warrior (and one-time MVP) Kevin Durant was having a great night. But, the commentator added, when Kevin Durant, or for that matter, any of the other Warriors, had a great game, it didn’t mean that the Warriors were necessarily having a great game.
When Steph Curry has a great game, the commentator concluded, the Warriors ALWAYS have a great game.
Yeah. Steph Curry is the CEO.
And by the way, Kevin Durant won Finals MVP. He got the credit, not Curry.
Like a team, a startup is not going to win every time out, and a single individual can only contribute so much to each effort. The CEO not only puts up their own numbers, but makes sure everyone around them can get theirs as well.
A CEO Lifts All Boats
At my own startups, in the beginning stages, it was always just me. I was in charge of the technology, the marketing, the sales, the implementation, the hiring, paying the bills and cashing the checks. I looked at my job as being able to do 60% of those functions well.
As those startups grew, and I was able to hire people to lead the teams where I wasn’t the core experience person, I still saw my job as being able to step in at any time and keep that team running at 60% capacity. In other words, I was the backup for sales, for marketing, for operations. And even with those roles filled, I still expected to contribute to those areas without getting in the way.
This is also true for those startups with an established CEO, where I came on board to the founding or executive team. I watched and learned from the CEO, and worked closely with him or her on strategy for my team in my area. It was never a “you do this” handoff, but more of a “let’s do this” collaboration.
A CEO Makes the Customers Lives Richer
That’s the universal reason for being for any company. When you break that statement down into the “how” to make their lives richer — putting more money in the customer’s pocket, saving the customer’s valuable time, giving the customer the experience they expect — then you’re talking about the individual components of the company, like product, sales, or support, and that’s the responsibility of the people leading those teams.
But at a higher level, the CEO is solely responsible for the breadth and the depth of the relationship the company maintains with its customers.
Furthermore, the CEO is the keeper of the vision — what the company and the product means to the market and how that definition evolves over time. All those stories about undercover bosses coming down from the boardroom to see what it’s really like in the field, or those ancient slogans like “I’m not only the president, I’m also a client,” those are nice. But that should be the norm.
In fact, one of the reasons I’ve stayed in startup for almost my entire career is because it just seems easier to stay in the shoes of the people I’m selling to. If I’m not continually using the product and figuring out how it can be made better, then it’s a good bet the customer isn’t either.
A CEO is The Magnet for Success
Outside of employees and customers, the CEO is there to make sure that those people who can help the company succeed — investors, partners, suppliers, and even close personal friends, are there and lined up and giving everything to the relationship.
A good CEO handles this kind of inbound traffic, a great CEO attracts this kind of inbound interest.
Lastly, when problems arise in any of these areas, with employees, with customers, with partners, the CEO is the one to step in and fix, only delegating when another member of the team can fix it better, cheaper, and with less friction.
So when you think about what it means to be the CEO, it’s everything from where you go next to who cleans up the mess. That’s not a job for one person, so make sure you’re giving everyone around you, from the executive team to the hands-on line workers, the tools and the confidence to be their best.