Want to know the difference between a good CEO and a bad CEO, no matter how far along your startup is? It’s not in what they *do*. A good CEO is simply a person who knows how to clearly define what they’re doing.
There isn’t just one kind of CEO. Look at different companies, and you’ll see that the way the CEO behaves defines how the company as a whole behaves.
Obviously, there are some things that are shared by all CEOs. For example, the CEO is always the most important person in the team, who will always have the last word. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the CEO is the most influential person on the team. There could be a manager who has more influence over their team than the CEO does. But that’s inside. Anyone on the outside who sees a mess or a success, they’re looking for the CEO, because that’s the person who incarnates the final decision.
In real life, this is seen even in very low-stakes ways: I’ll always remember one time when Xavier Niel came to eat dinner with us at The Family, and he said, “It’s funny, no matter how big Free gets, whenever someone in my family has a problem with their cable box, they call me first.” That’s the kind of visibility that comes with being the CEO. It’s not just a technical question, it’s about truly being the face of the company.
But because the CEO is so visible, there are tons of things that people think are part of the job that actually have absolutely nothing to do with it. Some CEOs are strong in finance, some understand nothing. Some CEOs are great managers, some are horrible. Some CEOs love giving interviews, some can’t stand it.
What is really great about being CEO is that you can decide to concentrate on the things you enjoy the most, and delegate the rest. The real power of the CEO is making those decisions.
Still, your freedom to make those choices depends on what stage your company is in.
Before product-market fit, being CEO is being the person who does literally everything, all the way down to taking out the trash and cleaning the bathroom, because there’s nobody else around who’s going to do it.
After product-market fit, you have to take responsibility for the company’s vision. That doesn’t mean it all comes from you. Some CEOs are very skilled at grabbing a vision that comes from other people and pushing it forward better than anyone else, making the company’s next steps obvious.
You also have to take responsibility over how much you’re paying people. You have to be able to look people in the eyes and say, “Yes, they’re making more than you, and this is why I think they’re more valuable than you. If that’s a problem, then it’s probably time for you to look for a job somewhere else.”
That can be a tough conversation, but that’s exactly what being CEO is. You won’t be the only one who has tough conversations, but you do need to be first up to do what needs to be done. You have to provide the vision that lets others step up and take over as leaders in their particular fields.
So many people don’t understand how management works in startups. A startup is a series of dictatorships, with everyone responsible for their field. The CEO needs to steer a system that lets everyone give the most they can, both following orders and making their own decisions, all the way down to the last employee. It’s an enlightened dictatorship: each individual understands why you’re doing things, knows how to do things, and delivers the KPI that they’re responsible for.
Again, there’s not just one way to be a CEO. It’s much more like a math problem, where you know the answer you need to get — but you can use more than one method to figure out the equation. You can be an emotional CEO, an analytical CEO…it’s all about being the best CEO that *you* can be.
Should I be hands-on, hands-off, etc., it’s the wrong question. How can you be pragmatic and achieve your vision? For a startup CEO, you have to find the way where everyone feels responsible, where everyone develops their ability to execute independently, and where you still maintain the ultimate responsibility and the last word on everything. Sounds easy enough, but it’s actually really, really hard.
Let’s say you’re a developer, and you love spending time on product. If you’re going to be CEO, the tension will arise from needing to not try to be the CTO of the company, and pushing yourself to be someone who people enjoy talking to, who people feel comfortable sharing things with. That takes politics and emotional awareness.
Too many people try to be CEO just by declaration. It’s like you grab a balloon and carry it around saying, “Listen to me, I have the balloon!”
That never works in startups, because a startup doesn’t have enough money for that to work. The reason why a CEO in a big company has so much power is because they have enough money that they can buy their way out of anything.
Being CEO at a startup is completely different. The CEO of a large company has the power of an emperor. For a startup CEO, the emperor is the market. The fact that you’re a great manager, that you’re a great leader, that people trust you, super. Every day, that ability to inspire trust and lead people is put in real danger by the decisions you make.
It’s like a video game. Every time you make a decision, you face resistance. If you’re right, you get some points; if you’re wrong, you lose some points. And everyone’s keeping score. The only way to win is to keep doing more things right than wrong.
And as those decisions are made, the CEO is in charge of managing the response to everything that happens. So in public, the CEO doesn’t get to have real emotions. You can have emotions with your loved ones and your team, you need to be transparent, genuine and honest with them. But you can’t show those emotions to people outside of that circle.
Understanding what you can say and to whom is critical. One of the saddest things I experienced at The Family was when someone came up to me after an event:
“Hi, I work for X startup.” (A company that wasn’t in our portfolio, but that was going bankrupt.)
“Oh, I’m so sorry, that’s tough, I hope it works out.”
*blank look* “What do you mean?”
*uhhhhh* “I mean, you know, going bankrupt, no money, the company…not existing anymore…”
“What are you talking about? They just asked me to organize our 4th birthday party!”
“Oh, sorry, I must be mistaken, my bad.”
I wasn’t mistaken. They fired everyone the next day. The team had no idea. That’s the sort of thing that should *never* happen, never ever. If your team learns that you’re bankrupt at the same time as the press does, you were just roleplaying being someone with responsibility.
The CEO needs to be able to have a genuine conversation with everyone in the team. And sometimes that means a discussion that gets people down, that’s hard to hear. In life, there’s bad news sometimes, and when it comes, you feel bad. It’s human.
A great startup isn’t great because people feel good even when there’s bad news. In a great startup, everyone feels bad when bad news arrives, and then they still work and they still fight.
That’s one of the biggest challenges I see with CEOs at The Family: how to tell your team the truth about what’s going on in the company, in a way that keeps everyone on board, that makes them feel that they’re all fighting for the same thing, that they can survive, get to the next milestone, and keep growing. No CEO can avoid the need to properly assess and talk about risk.
As you grow, a startup CEO finds that their daily tasks are fewer and fewer, and their time spent on fun stuff can go up. For example, almost every startup CEO starts out having to do sales, because if you don’t, the first clients don’t sign. But once you’re successful, obviously the CEO isn’t doing sales anymore.
But becoming successful is the price a CEO must pay to be able to pick and choose the tasks they want to spend time on. At that point, you have to be crystal clear with everyone about “this is my territory” and “this is your territory”. When you give someone responsibility, when you empower them to take charge, you need to be absolutely clear about the fact that you aren’t going to be there micromanaging everything they do.
Micromanagement just doesn’t work in startups. If you find yourself micromanaging, it means you screwed up and didn’t hire the right people. You need to hire smart people, people who will end up telling you how things should be done. If you’re spending all of your time showing others how to do things, you’ve got the wrong team around you.
Having the wrong team is a great way to start having lots of bad days as a CEO. Don’t underestimate how important it is for you, as the CEO, to enjoy your day and be happy with what’s going on in your startup. Never think that your mood doesn’t have a huge impact on your team. You can put the same team under two people, a good leader who is happy or a bad leader who doesn’t enjoy their job, and you’ll get completely different results.
That’s why it’s so important to constantly pay attention to what is wrong with you. As CEO, you have to work on yourself a lot, because that’s the best way to work on others. If there are things that stress you out, they’ll stress everyone out.
You don’t have to do everything yourself. A good startup CEO wants to create lots and lots of little CEOs who are all responsible for their particular area. Your goal is to help every one of those people find their way to empowerment, freedom, autonomy. It’s the only way to scale.
That’s why you can’t spend all your time on the weak links. If you do, the strong ones on your team won’t progress like they could. It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s true: You’ll get more from spending time helping the strong performers on the team than the weak ones.
When you see you have a weak link on your team and things just aren’t working out, your responsibility as a CEO is clear: you have to fire them.
Firing is one of the hardest things you have to do, because it means acknowledging that you, as CEO, made a mistake when you hired that person. It’s never the responsibility of the person you fire, it’s always your responsibility for having made a mistake. And you have to fix that mistake, for the good of the team. If you have 10 people who are doing a great job, and 1 person who isn’t, it affects them all. The others will see it as a breach of trust, a breach of equality — it’s your job to keep that sense of equality, where everyone feels that everyone else is as useful as they are.
Maintaining that balance within the team means getting really good at giving feedback. This is way harder than it sounds, because we’re never really taught how to give feedback. No parent has ever taught their kid how to go up to some other kid in their class and properly tell them what they’re doing wrong. (And thank god that’s the case, society would be horrible with a world full of CEOs.)
But giving good, constant feedback is absolutely necessary for a CEO. Good feedback is three things: honest, genuine, and not personal. It should be given right away — there’s nothing worse than letting someone do something wrong for a year and then telling them, all because you didn’t have the courage to say it from the beginning. That makes it so, so much worse.
Giving good feedback needs to start from day one. See it as your number one job, because no CEO can avoid it. You can absolutely be the CEO of a big tech company and understand nothing about coding, product design, marketing, whatever. It’s possible. But you can’t get around the need to give good feedback.
This means you need to be a good judge of people’s behavior. As CEO, you need to realize that nobody’s telling you the truth. There isn’t a CEO on earth whose team is telling them the whole truth. So your job is to listen and watch, to figure out what they’re saying, to evaluate how they’re saying it, and push to get the whole truth.
It’s hard! There really is a certain type of justice in this world, which is that the more successful you become, the dumber you get. Because the more successful you are, the harder it is to find anyone who will give you honest feedback. That’s why you need to keep a close inner circle of people who really know you, who knew you before you were successful, and who can stay honest with you. And you need to be able to listen in a way that tells you everything that people aren’t telling you.
Another way to deal with that problem is to find a circle of people who are facing the same challenges, people who aren’t in your team. This is usually other CEOs, those who are more or less at the same stage as you. Peer-to-peer mentoring is so powerful, and it’s so much more useful than going to people who built their company 20 years ago and who don’t actually have any clue of how to grow a tech startup today. Your peers can give very concrete advice, because they’ve been dealing with the same things just this week, or last month, or whenever.
As you get feedback, remember one super counter-intuitive thing: The speed of the decision is much more important than the quality of the decision. If you make 20 bad decisions and 1 good decision, but you do it all in one hour, your outcome is going to be better than if you made 19 good decisions over the course of a month. The company making a decision in an hour will always beat the one that makes a decision over the course of a month.
Two final bits of advice: as a CEO, taking care of your mental health is super important. It’s an issue where things aren’t fair — some people are simply more resistant to burning out than others. But if you as the CEO start to burn out, it’s going to be a giant issue for everyone on your team. Get professional help, there are lots of solutions out there to help you manage stress. Don’t get to a point where there’s no way back.
Take care of yourself financially as well. Being CEO means that you’re the last to be paid, and the first to stop getting a salary when things aren’t going well. So when things are going well, pay yourself and save as much as you can, you want to have at least one year in salary on the side as fast as possible. The worst thing you can do as a CEO is not pay yourself well when things are going well. Lots of investors don’t like this, but they’re wrong. If an investor tells you that you should only be paid well much later, when the company is really successful, tell them to do the same. After all, most investors get paid management fees on their fund, which means they’re very well paid whether their investments create returns or not.
You should never take money that puts the company at risk. You can’t pay yourself 50% of your revenues. But when things are working, taking a decent salary is smart. One day, when things aren’t going so well, it’s very possible that you’ll need to make a personal sacrifice to ensure that your company survives. So once you’ve got product-market fit and you’ve raised a decent amount of money, pay yourself enough so you aren’t worrying about money every month.
What you need will vary depending on your personal situation, so just be honest about it and don’t feel bad about the fact that you need to make a good living. (And this goes for your team too — when you can pay people well, do it. There’s zero upside to having people working for you who are worried about being able to pay their rent, to pay for childcare, to take a vacation every once in a while. People perform much better when they’re being paid well.)
All of this is about finding your comfort zone as a CEO. Don’t be the CEO other people want you to be — be the CEO that fits who you are, and that creates harmony and performance within your company.