While being the founder and CEO of a startup is great, one of the unique disadvantages that nobody tells you about is that your job often changes without warning, fanfare, title change, or raise. I learned this the hard way.
One minute you’re responsible for “doing.” You’re managing clients, customer success, the coffee budget, and sales. Then, all of a sudden, your business expands, you hire a few people, and now you’re a manager. You got promoted! (Congrats on the promotion — your edible arrangement is in the lobby.) Then you hire a few more people, your business continues to flourish, and suddenly you’re managing managers, negotiating lines of credit, and implementing lean product development.
Leaders can brace for these changes by proactively learning what their next jobs will be before their current roles are over and by becoming hyper-aware of when these shifts are coming. There are a few ways to do that.
Notice when your company is moving toward its next stage.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but some definite indicators will signal that your job is on the precipice of change. If you’re feeling far too busy, like you’re the person doing everything, you probably are. That unsustainable workflow is a sign your job will soon evolve.
When the line of people at your door asking questions decreases, it means your team members are settling into their roles. When my team members are feeling empowered and ready to take on new responsibilities, it usually means my job is about to change. And if your sales team, sales process, and sales leadership are all clicking, you’re probably about to bring on customers in bunches. When that happens, the CEO’s job will always change.
Continuously prepare yourself to adapt.
If company growth means your job will change without warning, what can you do to prepare? First, you need to surround yourself with advisors not on your board of directors. And you need different advisors for different phases of your business. Scout these people out.
One of my biggest priorities has always been to have advisors who have also started companies. It’s great to have really smart advisors, and it’s also great to have really experienced advisors. However, you’ll go through experiences they cannot relate to. Make sure you can turn to someone who has gone through situations you will face with your business.
It also helps to have a broad theoretical knowledge base. As your job changes, you will need to fall back on theoretical frameworks to make decisions in areas in which you have no experience. Operations, marketing, and sales all have theoretical constructs you should know. This type of framework will come in handy, so either go back to school or read up on these departments.
Networking is also crucial. I know, it’s ugly. But it works! Attorneys, accountants, investment bankers, real estate brokers, and private equity firms are all valuable ad hoc advisors. They’ve seen a lot through their other clients and can provide valuable, free insight.
Always stay connected to the lower level of your company.
As these rapid transitions occurred, I learned that it can be easy to lose contact with what you’re great at as a founder or CEO. There must be some sort of unwritten rule that says you cannot transition into an executive role and still engage in “non-executive” activities.
I made this mistake, and it was highly detrimental to my company. I’m skilled at sales, for instance, and in the early days of the company, I was still taking all the sales calls. Then we hired several people, and my job changed. As our team grew, I started solely managing — I wasn’t selling at all. Our leadership team stopped, recognized this, and corrected course.
Just like in the movie “The Intern,” for example, when Anne Hathaway’s character, the CEO of a fast-growing startup, spends time taking customer service calls, I regularly spend time making sales calls, even though we’re approaching 40 employees now. This might seem like an unwise use of my time, but it’s actually been great. I stay connected to my true strength, and I stay connected to what customers and potential customers are saying.
While your job description is always changing, even though the CEO title remains, it’s possible to prepare for each transition to a new role. Paying attention to your company’s growth, preparing yourself to deal with each change, and staying connected to every level of your company can help you learn, like me, to go with the flow of your company and move into each new phase of your role seamlessly.