Hey Coach, What Is A Startup CEO Supposed To Be Anyway?

As I was chatting with another CEO friend of mine tonight he said something that caught me off guard.

He said:

“I was talking with another person and we determined as a CEO you push your people in just the right way to get things done… you’re like a coach.  We realized that is a good thing and need to do more of that type of leading in our startups”

Some of you may be familiar with my history so being referred to as a coach might not be much of a surprise.  But in light of the context in which this conversation took place it was a surprise to me.  My CEO friend is farther down the startup path than I am and I tend look to him as a mento-friend.  I appreciated the kind words and thanked him accordingly.

Yet this begged the question: what is a startup CEO anyway?

My take is my friend was exactly right: a coach.

Okay Nick, then what is a coach?  A coach is a Leader.  A coach is someone who is responsible for the outcome of the team – win or lose.  The coach determines who plays on the team and who gets cut. Coaches push players to the brink and guide them in achieving levels of success previously thought impossible.  Coaches know the most about each opponent and dictate the playbook accordingly.  And most important, the coach evaluates each and every player, helping them identify where they are weak and exploiting where they are strong.

Ladies and gentleman – that’s a leader.

Given I am still at the beginnings of the exciting growth of Seconds and my personal journey as a CEO I will not take any credit of success – history will be the judge on that one.  But I couldn’t help but notice myself in the exact moment of this conversation grasping a few lessons regarding leadership I think are important for CEO’s at the startup level.

Face it, you ARE a coach

Like it or not, as the CEO you are the coach.  This should not be taken lightly and in the wrong hands it could lead to disaster.  One of my favorite quotes from author John C. Maxwell is “everything rises and falls on Leadership.”  The statement could be viewed as general toss-grass-in-the-wind pontification.  I tend to just take it at face value – life happens because leaders make things happen.  Or they don’t.

Leaders (CEO’s) determine the pace, structure and culture of a young startup company.  Understanding this should weigh heavily on a CEO’s heart and mind as they relentlessly plow forward.  What you say and what you do will hang like London fog within your small company.  You should think twice about each and every word, positively and negatively directed toward cofounders or customers.

And whether you know it or not, your team is looking  right at you to make decisions.  These decisions can be as mundane as the color of text on your site and as crucial as choosing to relocate the company or adding a co-founder.  Great leaders consistently make the right decision, and even better, teach and empower others to make the “right” decisions for them.

You are also a player

One of the toughest things about being CEO is the fact that you are a player – equal with other team members – at the same time being the coach with added intangible responsibilities.   Highly self-aware CEO’s intuitively understand this dynamic and can navigate the waters accordingly.  Some days you need to get your hands dirty with specs, feature fixes and other product oriented tasks – things you are probably drawn to more naturally as you flex your engineer or designer muscles.  Other days you need to put your coach hat on to lead your team by dictating the vision, talking to investors, evaluating opponents, interviewing new hires, connecting with media or visiting customers.

These things may not come natural to you but believe me they are essential.  I am convinced the drastically high level of failure experienced at startups is due to a failure of leadership.  Delineation too far in any direction from a leader for too long spells doom for a fragile company being built on a hope and a prayer.  If “everything rises and falls on leadership“, startup success must surely follow the same principles.

Leadership is in short supply

My friend mentioned something interesting as we were talking.  He said “I just don’t feel I can push them very hard… I guess I have that Seattle passive thing going.

I said, “look, people actually want to be led.”  And it’s true, (most) people naturally want to be told what to do.  Quite frankly, they are scared to make any important decisions so they naturally default to having someone else tell them what to do, in case it doesn’t work out and they have someone else to blame.  That’s the harsh reality view.  The more positive view is people want to be led and inspired, hoping that the time they are taking away from other important areas and people in their life is actually going to turn out to be something positive.

Unfortunately we have too many people more concerned with not pissing people off then accomplishing the current mission.  Appropriate and authentic leadership is definitely in short supply.  I am not advocating being a jerk or other unmentionable words.  I am calling for people to get more in-tune with the dynamics of human nature and motivation.  This is not rocket science, it’s all right there at the intersection of psychology, sociology and biology.  Notice how I didn’t mention technology…

I also noted to my friend the most common reaction from anyone who worked for Steve Jobs.  I said “dude, most people have said Steve Jobs was a jerk, an asshole, and generally not enjoyable to be around.  They also follow that statement up with the fact that he actually inspired the best out of them and they were somehow able to perform and deliver well above levels they ever thought possible.”  

That’s leadership.  Steve Jobs might not have been best friends with most people he worked with but boy did he get the best out of them.  Indeed, he was their coach.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s