You Don’t Need a CEO

I was having coffee with my friend Manu a few months ago when he told me he was looking for a CEO. Manu runs a successful business (OAK Computing). “Why do you need a CEO? You don’t need a CEO!”

He explained how he wanted to grow the business, bring in more customers, take on more projects. “Sounds like you need a business development person” I said. He agreed. I dug deeper.

Turns out Manu, a really successful guy, was insecure. Why would a great bus dev guy or gal want to join his little company? He had convinced himself that the only way to get someone good was if he offered them leadership of the whole company.

We all feel insecure about what we are doing. Hell, I brought in a CEO founder at Distil precisely because I felt that I wasn’t up to the job. Mostly you don’t need a CEO. Let’s review what a CEO usually does. This is necessarily a simplification.

The CEO is responsible for setting and communicating vision, both internally and externally. They are responsible for reporting honestly how the company is doing to the board of directors, shareholders, customers, and employees. As the company grows, keeping talented individuals working toward the same vision becomes more and more complex. This is why CEOs are almost always well compensated. Their job can become incredibly complex really quickly.

Notice I didn’t say that the CEO was responsible for sales. They may have a sales background but they are not responsible for selling the product. I also avoided words like management, decision maker, or product development. Their job may touch on these areas but in the end they a not responsible for any one thing but the success of the whole organization.

Unless your problem is getting dozens of people with different backgrounds and agendas to come together around a single, compelling idea — or your problem is finding that single compelling idea — then you probably don’t need a CEO. If you are a startup or small business you most definitely don’t have this problem.

If your problem is business development, don’t hire a CEO to do that. Doing so is dishonest, it’s a bait and switch scam. And if you find someone who says they will be doing business development but they want the CEO title, run. Run away fast. They are more interested in having the title than doing the work.

And what about the insecurity? If you have a company with a compelling product, customers, and a great team (as my friend Manu has) you will have no problem finding a great business development lead. Or engineering lead. Or any other role you need.

And if you don’t have a compelling product and customers, then you don’t have a business. But that’s another story.

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