When the CEO Becomes a Soldier

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We think of the CEO as the corporate equivalent of a general – planning out the strategy, deciding which battles to fight, determining what resources to apply in the pursuit of which efforts, leading teams into battle and motivating the organization. The parallel between general and CEO is at best an incomplete one. In a startup, the CEO is as much soldier as general.

Superior execution is too important in a startup for the CEO to be only a leader. In its earliest stages, startups require everyone to contribute 200% and the CEO is no different.  Yet as the company grows in people, products, revenues and complexity – there is a tendency to assume that the CEO morphs into the order-barking general.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Sure, as a company scales, the leadership traits of the CEO become increasingly important, but just as important is the CEO’s ability to step back into the role of individual contributor, and at times, just follow orders. I’ve learned that the assumption of most of the organization will be to always assume that the CEO is acting in a leadership capacity, so communicating that I’m playing one of the other roles proactively becomes extremely critical so that others can step up to the other roles. Here are some scenarios where I think about being an individual contributor even as BloomReach becomes a Company of 250 people:

  •  Selling a big deal: The customer always wants to talk to the CEO and well-placed involvement in driving a big deal could shorten a sales cycle by months or even create a deal where none existed. At the scale we’ve achieved, I’m not likely to be close enough to the details to drive the strategy around closing the deal. I’m more focused on taking orders from the sales rep or the broader account team.
  •  Closing a key employee: The recruiting team has likely laid a lot of the foundation for the discussions and the interview process is probably nearly complete. My job now is to help close the deal. There are certain questions from a candidate (value of the equity, vision of the company) that a CEO is best placed to answer. Being involved in closing a hire can make a big difference.
  •  Tackling a difficult conversation with a customer or an employee: Maybe our system has failed a customer. Maybe we have not delivered on an employee’s expectations.  By the time the CEO has been one of these situations,he or she is playing the role of firefighter. In situations of this kind, while I may not have been directly involved in the problem build-up, it becomes my job to calm the situation and identify a fruitful next step (which at times can be to part ways).
  • Building consensus around a key product decision: In this role, the CEO has become product manager. Often, in the murky world of product strategy, key stakeholders can have different perspectives on direction.  Ideally, the product managers and product marketers drive the decision.  But sometimes, that just doesn’t happen.   It then becomes the CEO’s role to gather the data, drive to a decision and then enroll those stakeholders in the decision.
  • Being a thought-partner to key executives and leaders: There are plenty of cases where the CEO is advisor, not decision-maker. Maybe a team is thinking about restructuring and considering alternatives. Maybe an investment decision is being made. There are plenty of decisions that shouldn’t be made by the CEO, but the CEO can serve as a counselor – provided he or she is comfortable knowing that the counsel may or may not be taken.  The culture of the organization needs to permit dissent – otherwise advice can easily be misinterpreted as orders.

The cases of CEO as soldier are often ones where the leverage gained from being an individual contributor can create outsized outcomes for the company and where the CEO is uniquely placed to deliver those outsized outcomes (i.e. it’s unlikely someone else can be found to play that role as effectively).  I’ve tried to be extremely deliberate about when I’m playing the role of leader, when I’m playing the role of advisor, and when I’m playing the role of soldier.   It’s important that the soldier role not be the dominant one, otherwise the CEO will crowd out others and ignore critical leadership duties.

Nonetheless, getting back to being a situational soldier can be extremely empowering for leaders as the team grows. While management can be fun, it can also be wearisome and the subset of days when one gets to own a product decision, own a sale or own a hire, can very much feel like a return to one’s roots, in the trenches.


Image from Army Ten-Miler Salute by The U.S. Army licensed under CC by 2.0

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