Q: I am the founder and CEO of a startup that has been fortunate enough to really take off in the past year. I’m early in my career, and I’m beginning to feel a bit out of my depth. What do I do? Founding was fun; CEO less so. Am I just not cut out for this?
A: Congratulations. This is all very exciting, and you have clearly been a problem solver every step of the way. That said, yes, you are probably out of your depth—but it has nothing to do with being cut out for it or not. You need to find the right experts to help you move your organization into its next phase, which means you should be looking for people who have more experience than you do in certain key areas. These folks may be later in their career, so look at a blend of generations to gather the specific leadership skills you need. One of the main skills that successful founder CEOs have is the ability to identify, bring in, and listen to resources needed to get to the next level of business success.
First, recognize that what you are feeling now is very common for people in your situation. Like those before you, you need to keep the vision and envision the new skills needed at every stage of the changing organization. Only when you stop learning and developing yourself and others is when you lose.
What you had to do to create your company is not necessarily what you need to do to succeed as it grows. John Hillen and Mark Nevins recently released What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You. This book demonstrates that, as business challenges get more sophisticated, a different set of strategic and interpersonal skills is required of its leaders. Hillen and Nevins have identified the “Seven Stalls of Leadership” and offer pragmatic solutions to overcome those stalls. Taking time to self-reflect with a resource like this will help you identify what is needed going forward and will give you concrete steps to take your leadership to the next level.
One of the most common issues leaders struggle with in the midst of organizational growth is getting the vision message across. When you have a small team, you can meet with them one on one and make sure everyone understands and is on board with the company vision. As the organization grows, it becomes harder to meet one on one, and your message instead gets delivered through others. If you cannot manage this shift effectively, then the culture starts to change.
It’s also important to stay ahead of what your organization needs—be proactive rather than reactive. Take a look at the skill set the company needs for where it is now and for where it is headed. Do you have that skill set? If not, where does it come from? With start ups, you usually have to bring that talent in externally. The problem is, leaders often think that bringing in external talent is always a possibility, and this leads to a lack of internal development. But if you’ve got internal people who started with you, who believed in your vision, and who lived through the transitions of growth, these are the people you want to develop into leadership positions.
A leader’s biggest weakness has two sides. Fewer people give them feedback, and when they do get feedback, they may not listen. Every founder has to be self-motivated, driven, and secure, and as their organization grows, if they don’t expand their willingness to take feedback, they risk the success of the entire organization. This is what so often derails leaders. When a founder leaves an organization, it is often because they weren’t able to reflect, and they ultimately became an obstacle to success and growth. Identify who your trusted advisors are and really open the door to feedback—you may not agree with everything they say, but you have to give them permission to give feedback on your strengths and challenges and to voice their opinion of how else they can support you and the long-term success of the organization.
Throughout this period of reflection, you may find that you don’t want to be the CEO—and that’s okay. And if you do want to continue as CEO, focus on developing your own skill set in light of what the organization needs, finding other people with complementary skill sets, and remaining open to continued learning and feedback. Best of luck in this next stage.