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How to Go from Founder to CEO

How to Go from Founder to CEO

As your business grows, you need to grow. Seems logical. Yet, many founders struggle to make the transition to CEO; From Execution to Management; From Innovator to Operator.

The facts: Only 50% of founders remain CEOs after being in business for three years, and only 40% after four years.

Why? What does it take to successfully transition? Well, you have to have a growth mindset, understand how the role changes, and adapt your leadership style and behaviors.

A Growth Mindset

When it goes from being your “baby” to a business!

Your idea, your sweat & tears, and your sleepless nights. You have all the insights into the opportunity, the innovation behind the product or service, the business model, the target customer. At this point, the culture, your team, and the way things get done are all an extension of you. That personal connection you had working alongside your team motivated and inspired them. They fed off your energy.

Now, it’s time to think about it as its own thing. A business. With a life of its own.

Success is no longer defined as your personal achievements but something larger than you in terms of market impact, value creation, organizational size.

As your business grows, you need to grow. You need a whole new set of skills for the job of CEO -- skills you may or may not have. Start by taking a hard look in the mirror and being honest with yourself. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Are you a sales person? marketing guru? tech wiz? How about as a leader? Are you a good manager? An effective communicator? What are you most passionate about?

Your personal development is as important as developing the business and they need to happen at the same time.

A New Job Description

What’s the difference? As a founder you were at the center of everything - every decision, every problem, you played every role, led every meeting, you had all the information… you get the idea.

Yet, as a CEO the goal is to remove yourself from the day-to-day. To get out of the weeds and have the time and space to think beyond next month or the next six months. To look out and see potential challenges and opportunities on the horizon.

To do this, you need to replace yourself with specific hires that have the skills and experience to own each business function that is critical to your strategy. You can no longer be at the center – don’t become the bottleneck that creates inefficiencies and stifles innovation. Your job now is to hire the right people and engage them (more on that in a minute).

So, what do you do now? As CEO the role is about strategy, culture, hiring, leading and developing managers, promoting collaboration across multiple functions, implementing systems and processes, and serving as the key connection with outside stakeholders. It’s a big role. You start to be pulled in a million new directions and each one requires new skills.

One way to help yourself is to seek out informal mentors, coaches, consultants, leadership programs, peers that are going through the same thing to share knowledge.

Engage Your Team

Ultimately, to free yourself up to take on this new role you not only need to hire the right talent you need to engage them. Your job is to create a performance culture where everyone is taking ownership of their responsibilities, delivering on their goals and hitting the metrics that matter.

To engage effectively you need to empower them. Which by definition means you have to give up some control. You need to trust that you have made smart hires and then build trust by letting them do their job.

Empowering is different from directing and delegating. You have given them an important role to play, now give them the autonomy to make decisions and take action within that role. To define the tasks for that function and how they get it done.

You become the coach. You encourage teamwork and support individual growth. You care about aligning personal goals with professional opportunities to be challenged and stretched. You boost morale when achievements don’t come quickly.

Finally, you listen. Stop, collaborate and listen… (yep I just quoted Vanilla Ice and, for you millennials, that will mean very little!) But seriously, start listening. Pay attention, ask open-ended questions, create channels for two-way feedback, encourage cross functional debriefs, grab coffee with someone 2 or 3 levels below, do regular AMAs one-on-one or hold a town hall.

At the end of the day, you are Anne Hathaway in the Intern. Spoiler alert - making the transition successfully is possible. 


Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.

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