3 Paths for Founding CEOs: Adapt, Assemble, or Move On

As companies grow from the startup to the expansion stage, founding CEOs are faced with three potential developmental paths.

CEO Leadership Development: 3 Paths for Founding CEOs

The roles of startup CEOs and expansion-stage CEOs differ greatly. They require completely different skill sets, and the majority of founders end up recruiting replacements to take over the companies they created. As I’ve written about previously, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is a common reality that accompanies the shift from searching for a business model to executing and scaling it effectively.
Navigating a company through the expansion stage takes operational expertise. You have to know how to recruit senior managers who have specific functional expertise, and you must be able to establish an operating rhythm that gets your growing team working toward the right goals. As your company transitions to the next stage, you must transition with it, and as you do you are faced with three paths.

1) Adapt to the New Reality

If you are dead set on remaining CEO, then you need to pick up the new skills needed to address the blind spots and manage your company’s expansion. That means you have to augment those skills that got you where you are now: your audacity to do something new, your passion to inspire others to take risks, and the tenacity to create and disrupt markets. In addition, you need to focus on managing through others and developing a rhythm for your team.
It’s extremely rare for a founder to have both start-up and growth-stage skills, and it’s even less likely that you can pick them up as you go. So, consider whether you’d hire yourself to run your company now that you are expanding — chances are, the honest answer is no.
randfishkinSuccessful Example: Rand Fishkin, Co-Founder and CEO, SEOmoz
Hear Fishkin discuss the challenges of navigating the transition from the startup to the expansion stage and the ways his leadership approach and responsibilities have evolved: Labcast: SEOmoz’s Rand Fishkin on Managing the Biggest Challenges of Your Company’s Growth

2) Assemble a Crack Team

Another option is to surround yourself with an executive team that brings the growth-stage experience and expertise your company needs. In a guest post for VentureBeat, I outlined the reasons why hiring a COO makes sense for a company progressing beyond the start-up phase, and one reader asked about recruiting a CFO instead. Depending on where your skills come up shortest, this can be a suitable alternative.
If, for example, you need more cover on overall operations, financial forecasting, and legal matters, then a CFO makes sense. For most companies entering the expansion stage, however, a sales and marketing-focused COO is the right choice.
michels_oren_10jpegSuccessful Example: Oren Michels, Co-Founder and CEO, Mashery

When it comes down to it, companies aren’t run by highly effective individuals, they’re run by highly effective teams. In this podcast interview with OpenView Senior Managing Director and Founder Scott Maxwell, Michels discusses how in the early days of Mashery, he surrounded himself with the best people possible who were experts in the areas he was weak in, which allowed him to focus on his strengths: Startup CEOs: Who Should You Hire First?

3) Transition into a New Role

The majority of start-up CEOs recruit their replacements as the company grows beyond $15 million in revenue. It’s that simple, and it’s usually the right choice. Work with your board to bring on a new CEO and transition into a new role. Don’t let your ego drive an emotional reaction. Put the company first, just as you always have, and you will come to the conclusion that it’s the right decision.
Scott-JohnsonSuccessful Example: Scott Johnson, Chairman and Founder of AtTask
Learn what it takes to make a successful CEO transition by reading up on the great example of AtTask: Founding CEOs: Do You Know When (& How) to Move On?

When do you think it’s possible for founders to evolve into effective operating CEOs?

The Chief Executive Officer

Firas was previously a venture capitalist at Openview. He has returned to his operational roots and now works as The Chief Executive Officer of Everteam and is also the Founder of nsquared advisory. Previously, he helped launch a VC fund, start and grow a successful software company and also served time as an obscenely expensive consultant, where he helped multi-billion-dollar companies get their operations back on track.
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