Who’s The Boss? What is a CEO?

CEO Succession, early stage, founder, Revenue Growth, Scalability, startup, venture

I had dinner recently with a former colleague and good friend, let’s call him Al, who has recently transitioned from CTO to CEO of an early stage company he founded; he’s struggling with every aspect of his new job. Al was originally the de-facto leader through his first funding round, then at the urging of many around him recruited an experienced CEO to “take it to the next level”. Potential investors, former bosses, and current shareholders felt this was a critical step in for them to invest more time or money. The common line was “You’re not a CEO”. The new CEO was performing well, hitting milestones, preparing new funding and building the business, but he and Al couldn’t get along.

So now Al is now back in charge. This happens often in the early stages, sometimes because the new CEO is a bad match, but that’s usually just an excuse. Usually the CEO leaves for good or bad reasons, or the founder can’t let go of control of the company. In this case it was the latter. Als investors and employees are quite unhappy and he’s not sleeping much.

In hearing his frustrations I figured out his main problem –  he’s having serious problems making decisions and sticking with them, which is why he brought in a professional CEO in the first place. He has no reference point for many key decisions so lacks the confidence to execute decisions. His frustration is that this doesn’t happen to him in technical matters – he’s brilliant at those decisions. Technical leaders frequently underestimate the job of the CEO or business leader in a fledgling startup. They use the logic – hey, I’m extremely smart, so marketing, sales, and business development can’t be as hard as developing an entire software platform. This is a big mistake, and a common reason why startups never get out of the gate.

I’ve been the incoming CEO several times in early stage startups, taking over for the founder. This transition is difficult to pull off, but necessary for many companies to scale. Emotionally it’s very hard for a founder to “let go” and trust an outsider to care as much as he/she does about their baby. There are also others around the founder that can feel ownership and impede the new CEO – a spouse, other early employees, a displaced senior manager who thought he/she had a shot at the job. I’ve experienced all of these situations, but I’ve also had many good experiences where I did have sponsorship and support, and succeeded.

In Al’s case, he never really committed himself to stepping aside, even though he said the words. He admits that now. In his actions he inadvertently sabotaged his new partner, changing the CEOs decisions without discussion, etc. He felt that the new CEO was making “too many” decisions. He obviously wasn’t ready. I realize that he still isn’t ready.

The reason for our meeting was to see if I was interested in the job – he feels that our long term relationship would provide the foundation for a successful transition, but I know it wouldn’t work. I explained to him what CEO means to me – the final decision maker in a company, answerable to a real Board of Directors, of which the founder is a member but not the only member. The E in CEO stands for execution, making things happen, responsible for the results. The CEO must communicate clearly to everyone involved what he/she is doing, especially if taking over the reins from a founder, but should be supported by all as the final major decision maker. If that process works, the company works. Without that authority they become ineffective quickly and are only doing portions of the job, and can’t take full responsibility; then they leave and you have to start all over.

I explained to Al two reasons why I wouldn’t join his company: 1) With all due respect, I don’t feel that he’s any more ready to let go than he was a year ago, even though he respects my abilities and has comfortably worked for me before, and 2) the company is distressed now, unhappy employees, unhappy investors, delays in both the business and technical initiatives, messy equity stakes and a decrease in trust all around. Like I said, a Big Mistake. I told him his best chance is to try to learn how to be a CEO or merge his company as fast as possible. But this one is most likely kaput.

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