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Traits of start-up CEOs

CEO position though seems very splendid is attached with lot of responsibilities especially for start-ups. The article lists a few pointers on what it takes to be a great start-up CEO, which may benefit upcoming start-ups and aspiring CEOs.

April 16, 2012 / 12:05 PM IST

Anil Joshi

CEO position though seems very splendid is attached with lot of responsibilities especially for start-ups. After having spent time with various CEOs, founders and co-founders of start-up who made big in their respective domain, I felt like penning few learning about what it takes to be a great start-up CEO, which may benefit upcoming start-ups and aspiring CEOs.

Building the tower brick by brick

The CEO need to be focused on ultimate goal and keep building the company quarter after quarter without losing focus on larger picture i.e. vision. The CEO needs to keep moving and monitoring the action to meet short term goals with single objective to meet larger vision. Most of the time CEOs lose track of larger objective and get carried away with current challenges or short term gain but a great CEO will find ways to pivot and keep taking necessary actions to reach ultimate goal. No company got built the easy way whether it was Google or Facebook or Twitter or Apple: the leaders were focused on creating long term value for all the stake holders with vision in mind. The great CEO will regularly evaluate smaller goals with objectives to meet larger vision.

Be Stress reliever

Most of the start-ups goes through lots of ups and down during early days. While it is good to be transparent and share the true picture with the team but the CEO need to take call on what all to be shared and what all to be absorbed by himself. No point stressing the team as it will only be non-productive, the CEO should lead from the front and take up challenges and absorb early stage stress while taking tough decisions. Not to say that when time arises then CEO should also share the burden as it will help but as far as possible the CEO should front the early day’s stress and challenges allowing team to focus on work and targets.

 Have right people on the board


Most of the time the founders/CEOs get carried away with their passion and want to do everything themselves whether it is product development, coding, marketing, business development, finance and even opening the office door; it is good in early days but as organisation grow the CEO need to delegate and built a good team around him. The CEO should always keep eyes open for good talent and induct people smarter than himself. It is not easy to hire good talent for start-ups but the CEO should be able to sell vision and motivate good talent to join the ship. They should have ability to find good people and take fast decisions in hiring them. Once on board the CEO should ensure that professionals are given enough room to function and delegate authority to right candidates, some mistakes will be made but in long run it will pay in building good organisation.


Investor’s relationship


The start-up CEO has a lot on his plate to address and most of the time day-to-day work does not allow thinking about the Investor. The fact remains however good your venture, investors have lot to handle as most of the time they have big portfolio to manage and if you do not get attention then it is quite obvious that you might have not engaged in the right perspective. The CEO should keep investors abreast about progress, issues, team and areas where they need help from investors. The continuous update will always allow you to seek timely help or assistance from Investors.


Be a good learner


I personally believe the Founders/CEOs are experts on what they build and do, but the company is beyond product and services and it is not necessary that the start-up CEO should know everything. In fact most of the CEO starts without formal education and have successfully built great companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Dell, to name few. The best way to learn is to have ability to learn while on the job and from failures, to emerge as good leaders. The best CEOs will build a smart team around themselves and do not forget to get smart mentors who could be your sounding board in your endeavour.


Be ready to unlearn and learn


Most of the stuff you may have learned or experienced while with big organisations will be helpful, but be ready to unlearn and learn new things as start-ups needs different skill sets and out-of-box thinking. Something which worked for large organisations need not necessarily work for start-ups as well; the CEO should be prepared to think differently as preconceived notions may hurt start-ups.


Willing to say No


The CEO will be flooded with various opportunities, request, suggestions and advises, explore all but should take action what is in the larger interest of organisation with one objective to achieve the ultimate vision. This will also help keeping teams focused on goals. There would be time when things will be really tempting but the CEO should learn the art of saying no for things which does not gel with the overall vision of the organisation.


Willing to dirty hands


The CEO is not supposed to know everything but it is good to have some technical knowledge as it will help in navigating team during critical situations. It is easy to ask the team to work on projects, but it makes lot of difference when you join the team in building it and it is real fun seeing thing shaping up. It will also help the CEO to hire right candidate when need be.


Have small goals and milestone


It looks huge if we see a mountain from bottom but if we target smaller steps and keep moving, the distance looks small. Always break tasks in to smaller goals and keep monitoring progress on a regular basis as this will also help in correcting things at the right time with minimal cost. It also helps in motivating teams as you celebrate success on reaching each milestone.


Ability to handle negative vibes and be a Motivator


The company will go through various phases during early days; some will be good and some real bad to even break the organisation. The start-up CEO should be able to take up bad news head on to avoid any damage to organization; he should keep motivating team so as not to lose focus on larger picture at hand. The worst would be to avoid the situation and allow it to die down its natural death. Mind it, it does not happen; in fact it will damage from all sides, the vendor will get jittery and employees will start feeling insecure etc. Hence the CEO should ensure that the team is motivated and be transparent on situations as people know what it is, and what is being done to address the situation.


Be a good communicator

Needless to say the start-up CEO should be a great communicator especially when it comes to pumping energy and passion in the team. The CEO should be able to communicate the vision of the company to everyone and in much simpler way. Do not be too technical or use jargons to communicate vision; make it simple so that even a child can understand and do not be offensive if someone challenges you; it will only offer opportunity to correct something which you may have missed unknowingly.

Do not run after fame


Be a real CEO like Steve Jobs, concentrate on results and not fame. There would be time when you would be required to choose between a conference or attending a media interview,  or joining your team member for important deal. Needless to say that you should choose joining your team member for deal, as it will take organisation closure to the goal then attending conference, which can be delegated.


Save for rainy days


Not all days would be same hence while in start-up mode do not overrun the budget and if need be cut wherever possible. Time has proved that those who saved for rainy days always excelled in long run. However that does not mean not to spend; spend on activity which brings business, meaning do not compromise on productive expenses but cut on non-productive expenses.


Exploit network


Most of the time first sale have come through a reference hence do not hesitate to exploit your network. Trust me, it always help.


Author’s Note: The above list can neither be construed as an exhaustive list nor definitive. These are just what I experienced while my journey with young, dynamic and successful CEOs. Will share more soon.

Anil Joshi is vice president of Mumbai Angels Network.


first published: Apr 16, 2012 11:09 am

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