When I co-founded the company along with my 3 friends (batchmates at college), I became the ‘CEO’ of our startup. Though I had my business cards saying ‘CEO’ and acquaintances trying to flatter me with ‘CEO’, I always had a slight difficulty in introducing myself as the ‘CEO’.
Founding a startup might get you the title name ‘CEO’, but it takes a whole lot more to actually be the Chief Executive Officer. It has been 3.5 years into our startup and I think I took about 2 years to raise myself or to convince my mind that ‘yes, I’m the CEO’. I have written a bit about a CEO’s role, but there is a lot more to becoming a CEO.
A CEO should have the Vision
Vision is the future. So, a CEO is expected to see the future and understand what lies ahead for the company. Easier said than done. I struggled quite a bit with this. We hear the theory that ‘you should live in the future and build product’, but nobody will tell you ‘how to live in the future?’
When I was confused, I decided to take short steps. This was particularly true after our first product failed. Instead of planning 3 years, we started planning 3 weeks (or lesser). This is definitely not the best strategy since there will course corrections; efforts will be wasted, team members will be confused, there will be a lack of clarity across the organisation, planning cannot be done effectively, activities will slow down.
When the CEO is able to understand the landscape and see what lies ahead, that is when he/she can shepherd the group to align the company to a larger vision.
A CEO should be able to take confident decisions, quickly
In the initial phases of a startup, it is all about finding a product or version of a product that sticks. There will be too many variables floating around. There will be a handful of decisions to be taken every day. When you are the CEO, your decisions direct the company. So, you have to take the decisions, quickly and confidently. I always see myself as a decisive person; so speed wasn’t an issue (early decision making in our company and how it evolved). However, it took me many months to grow confidence about my decisions.
How do you grow confidence about your decisions? When you see your decisions driving the company in the right ways, when you look back and see that with limited data you took the right decisions, when you see people, whom you respect, trusting your decisions (or maybe explicitly tell you to be confident in taking decisions). Basically, results will grow your confidence.
The team should trust and stick with the CEO
A CEO’s role is probably one of the biggest leadership roles. So, it is super important that your team trusts you and agrees to your decision. In some cases, the CEO’s decisions might be different from that of the other co-founders or team members. In such cases, the company cannot have two decisions. Of course, they can and should argue if they don’t agree. Sometimes the CEO might not be able to fully convince all. But even with the half conviction, the co-founders or team members should decide to execute it the best way, just because they trust you.
In our scenario, there was a case where our company was offered an angel round of $50,000. All my co-founders felt it is alright to take the money (we were struggling to make ends meet). For a few reasons, I felt that it is better not to take the money THEN (I too thought nothing BAD would happen if we took it). I wrote to my co-founders a big email with 6 or 7 points of why I DON’T think we should take the money. I’m not sure whether I could convince all 3 of them 100%, but they gave me the freedom to take the final call on that. That is trust. That is when you are growing in a CEO shoes.
Apart from these three, there are many more things at which I had to improve (or cultivate) to grow as an effective CEO. It is an ongoing process – you try to improve yourself every second of the day. Being the CEO has taught me a whole lot about being a CEO and still improve to BE better.
Make no mistake, your team makes you the CEO. If they don’t trust you as the CEO, it is only a matter of time before you will have questions against you and your role. Just like any leadership position, your role as a CEO holds when your team tells ‘he is our CEO’, and not when you say ‘I’m the CEO’.