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Taking Your Seat as a CEO
How does the founder CEO actually become the CEO? What is it like to go through this transition?
You are the CEO of the startup you founded. You work incredibly hard. Your company survived against all odds. You built a team you're proud of. You might have raised investment and now feel the pressure to deliver the returns. You put out fires every day, but new ones are coming up all the time.
You feel like you're supposed to have all the answers: for the team, for the board, for the customers, for the co-founders. You're expected to show vulnerability and still be killing it; to deliver results and focus on mental health; to be realistic and believe you'll change the world. You're never alone, but you're often lonely.
As the company keeps growing, the pressure increases and yet you feel like you're already at capacity. This is the moment when founders need to take their seat as a CEO to keep scaling, together with the company.
"Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself.
It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult."
Transition from a founder to a CEO
The job of a founder is to create a company, build the early team and make sure the startup doesn't crash during takeoff. This is a period when founders rely on their instinct to build the first version of the product, make first sales and make crucial first hires. Founders are intimately familiar with, and have an opinion on, everything that happens in their company, as they should in the early days. Founders are obsessed with finding out what might work, whereas CEOs are focused on running things that work already.
The job of a CEO is to run the business, making sure it achieves its goals. CEOs are focused on building the company that is building the product. They delegate a lot in order to focus on crucial decisions that cannot be delegated. Intimate obsession with every detail that was so helpful earlier is now described by the team as micromanagement.
If founders behave like CEOs too early, the startup is unlikely to survive. If the founders don't take their seat as a CEO as their business grows, they'll stifle its growth.
A client of mine likened it to jumpstarting a car. At first, you have to push the car to get it going. If you don't, the car won't start. At some point you need to jump behind the wheel and start the engine. If you don't, the car won't start.
At some point you need to jump behind the wheel and start the engine.
There's no playbook for the founder to CEO transition, which can be a very confusing time, especially for first-time CEOs.
I know this from personal experience. I founded Makers and took it to £7m+ of revenue and a team of 60, learning how to take my seat as a CEO. I learned that the process of taking your seat as a CEO is largely about personal growth, which has few shortcuts.
You never stop being a founder, though. In fact, you learn to choose between your founder skillset when the situation demands it (creating something new) and your CEO skillset when needed (operating an existing business).
The CEO job spec
The CEO has three jobs:
Hold and constantly communicate the vision
Build the team
Make sure there's cash in the bank.
In reality, the job spec is slightly more complex. There's stakeholder management as the number of investors, key customers, partners and employees is starting to grow. The communication evolves from having a pizza lunch with the entire team around the table to regular and deliberate engagement with the team, the board and the press. There's M&A and international expansion with unpredictable challenges. And, of course, you can't be a leader if you don't have followers who willingly choose to be led by you, trust you and respect you.
Yet, these three points are a useful guiding principle for a founder who's taking her seat as a CEO. Whether you're leading a company, a team or a single person, the job is the same: decide what needs to be done, choose who to trust it to, give them resources to succeed.