Even In The Quietest Moments (it’s lonely at the top)

CEO Succession, early stage, founder, Launch, Scalability, startup, startup CEO, Tom Nora, venture

“Even in the quietest moments, I wish I knew what I had to do”   – Supertramp

[This is about the loneliness of the CEO in a startup. A real startup, that has employees and funding and a going operation.]


It’s late on a Sunday night and you’re sitting alone preparing for the week ahead. It will include travel, employee issues, hiring, firing, product design, cash burn, a new facility, the next funding round and some client and partner visits. You have a great team for your little startup, in management and elsewhere. You have a few “startup whisperers” who advise you from afar, your parents are very supportive. Your spouse shows incredible patience and listens to your war stories every day. It’s not that you don’t love this, you do.

But in the end it’s all down to you. No matter how many people surround you, no matter who great your ecosystem is, being the CEO of a going startup is often a lonely job. By definition, in the final step of making many decisions is you alone making them.

  • Others depend on you to do this.
  • You have more information than anyone else in the company.
  • You get more blame and more accolades for results.
  • The outside world looks to you first, wants to talk to you.
  • No one is equal to you inside the company you need to maintain your leadership.

So it really is you alone.


How do you improve this situation? Draw from all these resources around you, especially external ones.

  • Pick one or 2 board members to get closer to, (pick the right ones).
  • Don’t ask for advise or what to do, that will confuse you and they contradict each other over time.
  • Find an old college or high school friend who’s disconnected from the business. Or a favorite teacher or professor.
  • Pay attention when outside mentors magically appear in your circle; I’ve met some of the best advisors at meetups and coffee shops.
  • Read voraciously, not just business or CEO books, but history, biographies. etc.
  • Try to mentor a potential replacement even if you’re not looking for that; you’ll learn a lot.
  • Use external consultants – management, executive, legal, recruiters to discuss ideas. Mark Zuckerberg hired an executive coach so he could learn to be a leader. The Google founders surrounded themselves with a dozen moentors and advisors.

I’ve found in my CEO positions that optimizing this thinking process can make the difference between success and failure, usually does. Please reach out to me if you want to discuss any of this with me. I’m @tomnora on twitter.


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