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In most business books, the role of the CEO boils down to a small number of key responsibilities. The CEO:
- Sets the overall direction and strategy of the company and communicates this direction regularly to employees, customers, investors, etc.
- Hires, trains, and allocates company employees against this overall direction while maintaining company culture.
- Raises and/or allocates capital against this overall direction.
- Acts as chief psychologist of the company. Founders are often surprised by the extent to which people and organizational issues start to dominate their time.
Many books emphasize the first two points—corporate strategy and culture setting. However, you will find that in practice you have little time in a high-growth, rapidly scaling company to think deeply about those points until you hire a strong executive team and manage your own time properly.
Instead of covering strategy-setting and big picture stuff, I want to instead cover three key tactical duties of a CEO that often go under-discussed: how to manage yourself, your reports, and your board of directors.
First and foremost: managing yourself. Because if you fail at that, you’re headed for burnout—and both you and your company will suffer.
PERSONAL TIME MANAGEMENT
As your company scales, the CEO role will need to scale with it. The demands on your time will grow nonlinearly, and more and more people will ask for your time, including members of your team, your customers (especially if you run an enterprise company), and various external stakeholders such as investors, the press, other entrepreneurs, etc. As CEO, you will need to find a way to get leverage on your time—and learn to say no a lot.
Key components of personal time management include:
- Auditing your calendar regularly.
- Saying no more often.
- Realizing your old way of operating will no longer work.
- Finding time for the things you care about in life.
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There are a few good ways for first-time managers to learn to delegate:
1. Hire an experienced manager to run a team and watch how she does it. You will notice she probably tends to hold regular 1:1s (to stay in sync with her team) while also trying to give the most rope to the team members who run most independently. The very best executives tend to be a combination of a router (i.e., they send items on to other people for execution and end meetings with few to no action items for themselves), a strategist, and a problem solver (i.e., someone who can identify when the team is off track and dive in to help).
2. Trial and error. Try delegating and try again until it works. This will be part of any approach you take. You need to build some pattern recognition for when someone is starting to flail (they seem overworked and rumpled, they’re late to every meeting, etc.) or when people have more slack in their time. You will learn to iterate on the size of responsibilities, teams, or projects you give someone and build confidence in their skills as they continue to add to their stack.
3. Get a formal or informal mentor. Ask a board member, angel, fellow entrepreneur, or executive you trust to mentor you on management and delegation. Alternatively, assemble a set of CEOs whose companies are at the same stage as yours, and meet them regularly for dinner so you can compare notes—you can learn a lot from your peers.
4. Get an executive coach. Most of these are bad (since any random person can dub himself an executive coach without any basis for it). But some are quite good and can help you think through how to increase your effectiveness, including proper delegation.1
However you choose to learn this skill, you’ll also need to watch out for key signs that you are not delegating the way the CEO of a high-growth company needs to:
- You tend to leave meetings with many action items for yourself.
- Someone now “owns” an area you used to run, but after 4-8 weeks you find you are still doing most of the work or weighing in on every decision, however small.
- You feel the need to jump in on every email thread or attend every meeting across the company.
You can also over-delegate and abdicate all responsibility for, or involvement in, areas that are crucial to the success of the company. I have seen at least one CEO go into hard-core avoidance mode or get distracted by the external spotlight. This approach can cause many problems for the company, but it is less common, so I do not address it in depth here.
The biggest reasons CEOs don’t delegate:
- They don’t know how.
- They don’t have lieutenants they can trust or who have the right skill sets to operate at scale. See the section in this book on hiring executives to address this issue.
- They are stuck in a work mode that made sense for a smaller company but doesn’t for their fast-growing organizations.
The latter can be addressed in part by auditing your calendar and asking yourself, “Do I really need to do this? Or can someone on my team do it instead?” When in doubt, force yourself to delegate. You can even set a weekly goal for the number or percentage of meetings you stop attending or items you start delegating.
AUDIT YOUR CALENDAR WEEKLY, THEN MONTHLY
I encourage you to go through your calendar once a week and add up where all your time is going. (Once you become proficient at this kind of auditing, bumping that down to once a month or once a quarter should be sufficient.) If your involvement is not uniquely crucial to the success of a task, or an item is not core to your personal life, you should figure out how to off-load it. In most cases, that will boil down to simply learning how to say no, which we’ll talk about next.
Often when I help high-growth CEOs audit their calendars, we find a few common types of meetings they should skip 90% of the time:
- First-round interviews. You don’t need to be part of every first-round interview for every candidate. You can still talk to people in later rounds or as a final sell. Executive hiring is different and as CEO you may need to actively reach out to candidates. More on executive hiring in a later chapter.
- Sales or partnership meetings. Who can go on your behalf? I am not advocating you skip all such meetings, but some you can probably skip. Note: Silicon Valley product- or engineering-centric founders can often have the opposite problem of not talking to their customers enough. If you are a technical founder selling to enterprises, you will need to make the time to meet with customers regularly.
- Every internal engineering, product, and sales meeting. When do you really need to be there? Who can you delegate to? You can also move from a lot of point meetings (attending every engineering or product sub-team meeting) to a simple process that brings everyone to you for important decisions (“Weekly product synch with the CEO”).
- Random external meetings. See “Learn to say no” below.
If you identify areas that consistently consume your time, but should no longer require the CEO, you can either delegate to someone on your team or hire someone to take them on. Hiring is often easier said than done if you are swamped, but you must force yourself to carve out the time.
If done right, after 4–8 weeks of self-auditing you will start to open up time to focus on strategy and the other key components of your company. You need to be focused on the most important things—not on everything. You also need the ability to take a step back and look at the big picture. If you spend all your time on the tactical brass tacks, you will steer the company in the wrong direction (or people will self-direct in the wrong direction).
One of the most important things you will do as CEO is learn to say no to those things that are not the best use of your time. Just as at some point you stopped taking out the trash and ordering food for your startup, there are other items you should stop doing or push back on. 2 For example:
- Items for your calendar audit. As mentioned above, you can skip things like first round interviews and many of the internal meetings you used to attend. Note that I am not advocating that you abdicate all involvement or responsibility. However, debating the nuances of database schema may or may not be the right thing for you to be involved with (unless your company sells a database product).
- 6am customer or partner meetings. If your East Coast contacts will meet with you at 9am ET, they will also meet with you at noon ET. Don’t take every meeting at any time—that will just exhaust you and not really help progress. While doing whatever it takes for your customers continues to be crucial, you need to create limits so you don’t burn yourself out. I have seen a number of CEOs continue to act like they are in scrappy startup mode years after product/market fit—often resulting in burn out.
- Every press opportunity. Do you really need to talk to Dog Life Monthly Webzine for their “SaaS entrepreneurship” issue?
- Every event. Choose the one or two highest-impact events to attend or speak at in a given quarter. You do not need to be everywhere. Be selective about the events you attend to free up time for other items.
- Excessive networking. Networking is a crucial part of being an entrepreneur, but take a look at your calendar: If large blocks of time are taken up each week with meeting other entrepreneurs or investors, you are probably not being focused enough with your time. Put networking into consolidated blocks so the switching cost is low, and focus your outreach on things that are actually meaningful to your company or to you personally.
- Unnecessary fundraising. Fundraising is a necessary side effect of having a company that needs capital to scale, but it’s also hugely distracting. Some people seem to fundraise for no reason other than they think they should. Or because “a VC approached us, so we figured we may as well talk.” Only fundraise when you are ready to do so and it supports a set of objectives for your company.
A big part of the transition from “hungry, no product/market fit CEO” to “high-growth CEO” is realizing that the amount of downtime you have will continue to collapse. You will need to say no to things that you would have readily accepted before. 3
When you go from a small startup to a larger one, one of the unexpected transitions is that the sorts of tasks that you can uniquely do to make your company successful change. While you may be an excellent programmer, if your team now has 50 or 500 engineers, it is unlikely that writing code is the best thing you can contribute as CEO. Similarly, your old patterns of personal and professional time management will break down as more people either need, or simply want, your time and attention. It may be painful, but to scale your organization and move ahead as CEO you will likely need to let go of certain parts of your prior roles that you enjoyed or thought were important.
One of the mistakes I made in my first two-and-a-half years as CEO of Color Genomics was that my vacations often were not real vacations. On my first anniversary trip with my wife, I spent half a day on the phone with a potential major partner. (Incidentally, the partnership did not work out.) On subsequent trips and vacations, I was constantly online, on the phone, and effectively trying to work full time while supposedly out of the office. This was also true for weekends—I was working every day of every one. This path can only lead to burnout, and I now try to truly unplug when away.
A CEO’s energy levels dictate those of the team. You should find time to take vacations and truly be offline—otherwise you will lose energy, burn out, and potentially give up. This means once a year you should take a real one- to two-week vacation, and every quarter you should take a three-day weekend. If you are working every day, I strongly suggest that you start enforcing a personal no-work day at least once a week. Burning out will not help you or your company deal with all the stresses of scaling.
In ways big and small, you need to remember to take time for yourself. If you have a significant other, make sure at least one night a week is held for date night—and really do something together that night. Similarly, schedule exercise in the morning at least three times a week. One way to enforce this is to hire a personal trainer or schedule workouts or runs with a friend. That peer pressure will ensure that you actually make it happen.
A common trigger of founder burnout is finding yourself working on things that you hate. Some product-centric founders end up having to spend endless hours on managing people, sitting in meetings discussing sales compensation plans, sales pipelines, marketing plans, HR issues, and other items that bore them to tears. Mark Zuckerberg famously delegated big swaths of Facebook to Sheryl Sandberg in order to free up more time to focus on product and strategy.
“A common trigger of founder burnout is finding yourself working on things that you hate.”
– Elad Gil
If you end up working long hours on things you fundamentally couldn’t care less about, you should consider hiring one or more executives (or a COO) to do all those things on behalf of the company. As a founder and CEO, you do not need to be excellent at everything or enjoy everything. Rather, you need to build the competency within the company so that the company collectively is excellent at these other functions.
When you take care of yourself, you’ll be much better equipped to tackle the next key leadership tasks of a CEO: managing your reports (next section) and managing your board of directors.
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