Being CEO

On Being CEO: By Serial Entrepreneur Ed Engler


What to know about being CEO?

First, know that, narcissists aside, everyone has “imposter syndrome” some or all of the time: that you don’t deserve to be CEO and don’t really have everything figured out about everything all the time like you feel like you’re supposed to.  Like everyone wants you to.  They even actually believe that you do, which is what’s so scary, because you don’t.

In fact it’s the CEOs job to soak up the constant uncertainty, commit to figuring out the path forward in the timeframe needed, bringing the human (sick, lazy, late, emotional, ready to quit) team along to achieve the impossible together and project confidence the entire time as you actually do it.  Note that it is specifically NOT your job to DO any of the work.  Unless nobody else is doing it.  Which is your fault anyway for not hiring anyone!  The fact is, your team needs to believe that you know what you’re doing so they will do it.  You’ll be the first to ask for it and the last to honestly believe it.  Many MANY CEOs are flabbergasted by what their organizations can do under their leadership.  Most CEOs won’t say that too often, though and letting go long enough to let them do it is a big challenge for many.  A long vacation helps!

In the years before I launched my own company, I was an elite technical consultant at an enterprise software company that IBM would bring in to fix their toughest distributed systems problems for their biggest customers.  I went into these giant companies knowing nothing about their particular systems, the youngest guy in the room and relied on only one thing: focus on learning fast.  If you can figure out the answer 5 minutes before your customer does, and they learn it from you, you look like a genius.  It turns out they’re all so tied up in their own issues they can’t think about the problems they bring to you, so any lame effort your imposter self brings to the table is already better than their own totally useless (or worse, ignorantly destructive) efforts.  At least you’ll make an effort to find and read the instructions and/or seek guidance from any experts you can find.

Here’s the big news: You are already a superhero!  Your biggest impediment is yourself.  You can work on time management, reducing procrastination and become a serious execution ninja!  Ninjas get so much done so quickly, though, that they get tired, so resting (is that procrastinating?) is needed and important.  Self-compassion and relaxation need to be a part of your daily and weekly cycles to manage your energy, recharge routinely and have awesome focus and impact when you’re on ninja duty.

I once was at a startup with a (ludicrous) 3-year sprint to build a product before they could get revenue: The CEO wanted to ask all of us to work 100 hours a week until the product was out but he realized the team would burn out before the project was finished.  They instituted a 50-hour work week and asked everyone to really focus and do great work for 10 hours a day, 5 days a week: “work smart”, not “work hard”.  Some weeks we probably hit 60+ but the team could sustain that level of effort basically indefinitely and the focus helped us be pretty productive!

As the founder, though, it won’t be enough unless you can delegate an increasing amount of the work.  At first you can work 60, 80 even 100 hours per week but it’s not sustainable.  Only by expanding your team and getting others to do the work will you be able to grow.

So, yes, as my wife reminds me, she saw me working around the clock in a freezing cold office from the single pane windows in Pittsburgh and cut off finger gloves to keep my hands warm while typing.  I had my first customer right away and lots of demand so then I worked on hiring.  I had my first employee within 60 days and 10 within 5 months.  It turns out hiring is the path of scalable success as you: 1) Get to do it, 2) Learn to do it well, 3) Get your team to do it well.

After I hired 10 people I could afford the heat so it was just one cold winter! 🙂

Make the work fun enough to do it all the time and it won’t feel like work!  Delegate everything that you don’t love to do and it will get better over time.  Hire and delegate everything you can and get ready for your employees to mess up.  That would be your fault, though, for not training them sufficiently.  Try again and again until *they* get it right and you just sit back and smile.  You can’t make much progress anyway if you do the work instead of delegating, so delegate what you don’t like!

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