- Mentor to CEO of venture-funded private companies
- Founder of many companies and a CEO many times
- Board member; VC; EIR; Professor of Entrepreneurial Management
- All 5 Best Practices
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Lonely at the Top: Help for CEOs When It Seems There Is No One To Turn To
Startup CEOs are the makers of their own worlds. Typically, they are the geniuses behind their product or service. The business exists only because they willed it to exist, by sheer determination and commitment. They are the keepers of the dream, the driving force toward its realization. The solvers of all problems.
If only they had someone they could talk to.
What? What about the team they have assembled: the ones with the C-level or VP titles who are playing key roles in the company? What about the board members the CEO has carefully put together to support the company and ensure its success? What about friends, family members, peers at other companies?
If you are a CEO, you know the difficulty: A member or members of the executive team may be the problem. The board members who seemed so supportive when they came aboard now seem only to care about results. You get so little time with your spouse or family members as it is, you don’t want to burden them. And as for other CEOs, well, where’s the time for that, and do you really want to admit to them that something’s not going well at your company?
For these and other reasons, the temptation is strong to retreat into isolation. The CEO may be the maker of his or her own world, but it can become a world of loneliness and a go-it-alone mentality. And that can result in poor decision making that may undermine the success of the business.
The kinds of problems a CEO may encounter are many and varied; the ones offered up in the Common Problems section of this topic are only examples. The point is, they are problems the CEO may be tempted, unwisely, to try to solve alone.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There is wise counsel to be had, and Best Practices to ensure that it is available when you need it.
Best Practice 1: Seek out other CEOs and make relationships with them before you might need them.
As early as possible in your tenure as a startup CEO, reach out to other CEOs in your geographic area and industry. These CEOs are likely to have similar problems and are also likely trying to build relationships. Do this early on because you don't want them to think you are reaching out to them just because you have a problem. Develop the relationships first. Get together for coffee or whatever just to get to know each other. Build a small group where you can share ideas, maybe once a month. Once you've built trust on an informal basis, it makes it easier to reach out to someone when you have a specific issue you need help with or simply want some good feedback.
Best Practice 2: Open up to family members, including siblings.
The biggest reason to open up to family is a simple matter of trust. Among your siblings, children and spouse, you are likely to have the kind of bond that allows you to discuss anything about your business in confidence. They may not have the specific expertise and knowledge that you need, but as sounding boards, there may be nobody you can trust more to listen and let you talk through your problems. It may also be true that they can offer some helpful guidance. Chances are they've come from the same educational background or life experience as you. And they may have developed expertise that is complementary to your own.
Best Practice 3: Make a special relationship with at least one board member who can act as a mentor or confidant.
Some CEOs are too insecure about their board relationships to enter into a trusting relationship with any particular member. And there is risk: You can confide something that, if it is shared with other board members, could diminish your standing. So take good care in establishing this one special relationship. Trust your instincts and what they tell you about any individual member, and how well the two of you mesh. But usually, there is at least one board member that you've clicked with from the beginning. Perhaps he or she is someone you recruited to the board, or whom you just found it easy to be with from the get-go. Build on that relationship. You need someone on the board who can advise you and represent your best interests among other board members. The potential upside outweighs the possible downside.
Best Practice 4: Look for retired CEOs who would be more than happy to serve as a sounding board.
There are many former CEOs who, for whatever reason, have stepped away from active roles but who have expertise you might find helpful. Chances are you will encounter them in your networking or they are people you worked for as you were coming up in business. Use them as a sounding board. Many remain current on the trends and common problems in their industry sector. And there are universal management principles and best practices that are timeless. Take advantage of what they can offer you.
Best Practice 5: When you see symptoms of a problem, deal with them right away. Looking away will only further isolate you as a leader.
If your people know that you are paying attention to the stresses and issues in the organization, they will be less likely to try to keep them from you. And they will know that you are not going to let them fester or get swept under a rug. If you do not demonstrate a willingness to engage when problems are first arising, your people may not have the confidence to come to you as they worsen. Until, of course, it becomes a crisis, and the solution may be more difficult or painful. So be prepared to act when you see smoke. Don't wait until it fills up the room.