What is the CEO's job?

The CEO role is the most-hyped and least understood. Let's get clear on the work at hand.

What is the CEO's job?
What is the CEO's job?

I am not sure what my job actually is!

As a coach, I meet with several new CEOs in any given week. One of the questions I like to ask in initial conversations is "What do you hold to be your accountabilities in your role as CEO?"

The answers are enlightening. Less because of the specifics, and more because of what is shared by most of the CEOs I meet. Most CEOs, irrespective of the stage of the company, market, or location, are not clear on what specifically their job is.

There is a vague sense they need to fundraise, to know where the company is going, or to make sure revenue grows. Some cite the business school answer: 'To increase shareholder value.' None of that is entirely inaccurate, and the answers always come from a positive place of wanting to help the company succeed by ensuring it is well-led. But the lack of specificity can make it hard to build a plan for success. As a result, most of the leaders I meet feel they are failing at the role.

Because they are not clear on what the job really is, many CEOs hold an unspoken and self-imposed expectation that their job is to do it all. Yes, there are other people in the business, but at the end of the day all the work rolls up to them. This view often leads to micro-management (it is my job to ensure all the work is done well!) and to burnout (it is all on my shoulders!)

Getting clear on the CEO's accountabilities

The good news is that it is possible to define the accountabilities of the CEO role such that the job is right-sized. Such clarity also invites us as leaders to see ourselves as part of a larger whole. Yes, we have a role to play, and it is a big role, but the outcome is on our shoulders. Not on my shoulders.

Various smart people have defined the CEO role differently. (In our definition we have borrowed heavily from Fred Wilson's description of the role.) At our coaching firm, Sanity Labs, we define the CEO accountabilities as follows:

  1. To hold the vision
  2. To recruit the team needed to execute that vision
  3. To resource that team with: a. Capital b. Clarity c. Care

That is it. That is the job.

When I share this definition with CEOs for the first time, I often see their shoulders relax and a smile spread across their face.

"That sounds amazing," they often say. "That sounds like a job I would actually like to have."

What often comes next is a flicker of disappointment and a comment along the lines of, "There is no way I could do only that. There is too much else to do." And there, right at that point, often begins a very interesting exploration. As a coach, my curiosity is piqued at that point. I begin to wonder:

  • What might be in the way?
  • What is taking up this leader's time and intention that is not actually within her job description?
  • Where are we underutilizing the team around this leader?
  • Where are we missing critical team members?
  • Where might this leader, as I often did, be standing in her own way?

This last piece can come in many forms. Sometimes, as founders or leaders, we are reticent to delegate critical work to others out of fear ("This fundraise is too important. If it fails the company dies. There is no way I could ask someone else on the team to help put the pitch deck together!") Other times, we are reluctant because of ego. While a part of us wishes the burden was not so heavy, another part feels secretly most valuable when doing work 'only we could do.'

Could that really be possible?

Early-stage founding CEOs may read the definition above and think "What a luxury that would be! One day, maybe, I will have that job." And frankly, if that is you, you may be right. I would posit that it is not that this description is inaccurate for your role, but you may actually be holding two roles at once. And one of those roles is overly burdensome in the early days. You are holding the role of CEO, and you are also holding the role of the founder.

Founders do the critical zero-to-one work of:

  • Identifying a prospective need in the market
  • Learning about potential customers and the specifics of their pains or needs
  • Validating an approach to addressing those needs through research, testing, and iteration
  • Matching those learnings with a viable business model to create a path toward building a business

Until a startup or organization reaches product-market fit, CEO work is often more fluid. I will share more thoughts on this below. And it is understandable that an early-stage founder/CEO may feel most of her attention goes toward making, coding, or 'doing', rather than to CEO-ing. And that is partially true (although many early-stage CEOs ignore their CEO accountabilities to the team's peril.)

As a company finds product-market fit, or as an organization or non-profit finds its stride and begins to scale, the founder/CEO's work begins to shift toward a true CEO role. This is where our definition, particularly in its simplicity, begins to really hit its stride.

Many CEOs we work with are struck by all that is not on this list of CEO accountabilities.

As a startup ecosystem, we have so many myths built around what it means to be a CEO, or a founder, that many of us end up carrying outsized or misplaced expectations of ourselves in the role. These may include:

  • I need to be the company's product genius
  • It is my job to have unique insights on the market unavailable to anyone else
  • I need to set the pace for the team. First in, last out of the office. Lead sled-dog.
  • I need to protect the team from bad news. I am their shield from the world so they can focus without fear.
  • I need to take on any role for which we do not have the right leader in place.

And that is only a sample list. We could keep going.

If anything on that list strikes you as something you would really like to do, more power to you. This is your company, you should work and lead as you see fit. But you do not need to take any of this on out of the sense that it is in your job description. It is not.

And if you are going to take on work that is outside your role, it may be helpful to you and your organization to ensure you are getting the basics right first!

To that end, let's take a closer look at the accountabilities that are in your job description.

Hold the vision

The first accountability of the CEO is to hold the vision.

The job is not to "create the vision." At least not necessarily nor single-handedly. Nor is it the job to have a crystal ball.

As a coach, I often hear CEOs bemoan complaints from their team that the company does not have a clear vision. The CEO will often express a sentiment that goes something like: "How am I supposed to know exactly what will happen or where we will go?"

Because they know that they do not know, they kick the can.

I know there were many years in my own journey as a founder and CEO where I was guilty of this. And I had my rationalizations:

  • We are just trying to survive!
  • We need to get to the next funding round, then we will have time to think bigger.
  • Right now, it is all about validating our near-term direction. There is no point in thinking long term because so much might change.

Even as I re-read my excuses above, all these years later, I think "Yes! He has a point!" But if you go back and read my 360 reviews from those early years, you will see that my team was hungering for more clarity.

I coach a CEO who previously held a senior product role with a large public company. Early in our coaching work, she showed up to a session excited to share with me a company roadmap she had spent many hours creating. It was 20+ pages and provided tremendous detail on how the coming months and years ought to unfold for the product and for the company. In a recent session, nearly a year later, she was laughing about how little of the plan had ever been used. There were so many changing variables along the way in this early-stage, pre-product-market fit company that success only came through tossing out the plan several times along the way. And some version of that is typically true for all early-stage companies.

If the job then is not to lock one's self in a closet and draft a 20-page plan, what does it actually mean to hold the vision?

Here is one simple way to look at vision:

  • What is our purpose? (What change are we looking to effect in the world?)
  • What does success look like?
  • What are our milestones along the way?

Particularly in early-stage companies, holding the vision is more about pointing consistently toward a North Star than it is having a detailed map of the journey to that star.

We may not know how we are going to get there. The route may be circuitous and full of false starts. We may not even know whether we are taking a hot air balloon or a spaceship. But we know where we are going.

Starting with purpose helps the team orient around the why. The why has a way of binding a founding team and early employees. It also allows prospective employees, investors, or advisors to quickly assess whether or not the mission of the organization matters to them personally. Helping prospective employees or partners quickly assess whether or not they really give a shit about the work at hand is a competitive advantage.

Note that it is not the job of the CEO to "create" the vision. Nor is it her job to have a crystal ball.

Contrary to the efforts of the experienced product lead I mentioned above, it is not necessary (and likely not advisable) for the CEO to lock herself in a room and draft a 20-page description of the future. At best, such attempts make it difficult to create buy-in among founders and the early team. At worst, the team is left with a plan comprised of un-informed guesswork which provides a map that does not actually go anywhere.

It is difficult for us as humans to get excited about a plan we have not helped craft. A CEO who tries to craft the detailed plan alone is thus often left not only feeling alone in the work but also compelled to pitch her vision to the team and try and get them energized for the work at hand.

It may be far easier to provide a clear purpose and to invite the team into the exploration of how we might effect the change we wish to see in the world. Via this path, I am suddenly less alone. On day one, I have people around me looking at all prospective paths of achieving our target ends and a more natural commitment to the journey once we align on our desired route. This approach need not result in consensus, the founders or CEO are still welcome to make the final decisions on where we go or what we test, but the team has been invited to brainstorm, debate, and advise. The goal is fewer blindspots and easier alignment.

In addition to a clear understanding of our purpose, or destination, it is helpful to align the team around clear mile markers. In other words, as we are headed toward our North Star, how might we know if we are headed in the right direction and making meaningful, timely progress toward that goal?

One way of approaching such milestones is to have clear 10, 5, 3, and one-year goals for the business. The north-star purpose may be captured in the 10-year goal. The shorter-term goals do not need to describe every detail of the future nor every detail of the business in that future. Even a handful of bullet points might be enough to help align the team on where we are headed and how we will know if we are on the right track:

  • How do we want the world to be different?
  • What do we want our customers to be experiencing?
  • What are our key business metrics at this stage? (Revenue, customer count, etc.)

Once we are clear on our purpose and have rough milestones for our progress, the team can get to work organizing the plan of how we get from here to there. In the earliest days of a startup, this likely means the founding team mapping their vision of product-market fit, assessing the underlying risks of that model, and testing those risks and a systematized fashion. My favorite model for this stage is The Lean Startup by Eric Reis.

Post-product-market fit, this work typically means looking at the one-year vision and then breaking it down to the next quarter:

  • Where do we need to be by the end of this quarter in order to be on track for our one-year vision?
  • What dependencies exist in our one-year vision and what needs prioritization in the next quarter as a result?
  • What work would we be foolish to ignore in this next quarter if we are to stay on track for our one-year vision?

Great CEOs understand where their most powerful leverage points are in the business. One of the most powerful is helping ensure the team is aligned on the work that matters most at any given time. Many of the CEOs I work with begin to find the most critical days of the year in their role are those at the beginning and end of each quarter. At the beginning of the quarter, they are coaching the team to ensure the team undertakes a rigorous process of evaluating the priorities for the quarter. At the end of the quarter, they are coaching the team to thoughtfully evaluate the data and learnings from the quarter so that the board/team/etc. can make informed decisions about the future.

In startups, and perhaps in all organizations, the vision need not be set in stone to be effective. The goal of ~quarterly planning is to allow the team to have enough time to organize and do meaningful work toward learning what we need to learn. We want enough time to learn but not so much time that we waste resources if we are headed in the wrong direction or uncover some learning that breaks our whole model for the future. If we uncover such learnings, we pause, collect data, and modify the vision.

Ensuring an organization builds this kind of cadence of thoughtfully planning, learning, and where needed reshaping the approach is how a CEO effectively holds the vision for the organization.

Recruit and retain the team

The second accountability of the CEO is to recruit and retain the team needed to execute the vision.

In the earliest days of a startup, this likely means pulling together the founding team. Ideally, the founding team possesses the talents necessary to get the initial product to market without substantial outside assistance.

The CEO may participate as a 'maker' in the early days: actively helping to create the product or service the team is looking to bring to market.

As the company finds traction and begins to scale, the CEO's attention shifts from making and early team hiring, to focusing on hiring company leadership and the company board.

Once a company is on firm footing in terms of product-market fit and on a path toward predictable growth, it becomes critical the CEO turns her attention toward setting the team up for scalability.

Perhaps the most impactful work a CEO does in setting the team up for scalability is to hire a leadership team comprised of domain experts in each key area of the business and then to coach and develop that team into a high-trust, high-function team.

The CEO is also accountable for recruiting and managing the company's board of directors. For companies who choose to have (or must have) a board, this is a frequently overlooked opportunity for support and expertise as well as a too-frequent source of land mines. It is the CEO's job to ensure the board, like the leadership team, develops into a high-trust, high-function team. But this is rarely understood or planned for by first-time CEOs. Venture-backed companies in particular often end up with boards comprised of investors willing to write the biggest checks with little thought to the long-term viability of the board members in question.

Lastly, the CEO is accountable for recruiting and retaining key outside partners for the organization. This might include disciplines such as legal, banking, or other partnerships critical to the company's function. As the company scales, oversight of these partnerships might be delegated to another member of the leadership team, but ultimate accountability for the efficacy of these partnerships lies with the CEO.

Retaining 'the team,' or all elements of the team (leadership, employees, board, partners) is largely about ensuring the culture and working norms are in place to allow the team to thrive. Much of this work falls under the third accountability below ('Resourcing the team') but we pair 'retaining' with 'recruiting' to bring attention to the intention that anyone recruited be integrated into the broader mission and team as well as set up for long-term success within the organization. Like a new kidney received via transplant, a great hire only matters if she integrates effectively into the team and is well-aligned for long-term impact.

Resource the team

The third accountability of the CEO is to resource the team with capital, clarity, and care.

Capital

Resourcing the team with capital begins with ensuring the company has a sound business model. There should be a clear understanding of how, now or in the future, the company will have more cash in the bank at the end of the month than in the beginning. We should understand, or be working to clearly understand, how customers will come to value and pay for our product or service as well as how we will acquire those customers for less than they pay us.

For companies not yet generating a profit, part of resourcing capital needs will likely include raising outside funding. This might come in the form of debt, venture capital, strategic investment, or other means.

Particularly in the Silicon Valley world, many founders often think of successfully raised, sequential rounds of venture capital as the only means of successfully addressing this accountability. I meet many CEOs whose full attention is on how they will raise the next round, or what might get in the way. And while there may be many benefits to giving this question attention and focus, I have witnessed CEOs feeling more grounded when noting that venture capital is only one means of resourcing a company with capital. Even for companies who have previously raised venture, or who plan to raise more, it can be strategically and emotionally helpful to also consider multiple prospective paths for capitalizing their businesses. These may include among others:

  • Getting cashflow positive
  • Funding from customers
  • Bank debt
  • Strategic investment (investment from prospective partners or acquirers)

Even selling the business might be considered a form of meeting this accountability. If the company is clear on its mission (the change it wants to see in the world), it may be the most effective way to achieve that mission, and to remain solvent along the way, is as a part of a larger organization. That is not a failure, it may be a wonderful form of success.

Clarity

The second element of resourcing the team is clarity. Clarity is synthesized in the following two questions:

  1. Are we as a team aligned on where we are going?
  2. Are we as a team in agreement on how we will work together to get there?

The first question relates to vision. The second question is about values and working norms.

Planning to a vision

As noted above, holding a vision is not about having a crystal ball. And it is not about locking oneself in a closet and crafting every detail of a 10-year plan. Rather, it is about collaborating with whoever is needed to find the North Star. The next step is helping the team to break down that vision into a near-term actionable plan. This often takes the form of annual, quarterly, monthly, or weekly planning.

In other words, now that we know the change we are looking to make in the world when we will have succeeded, and the major milestones we will achieve along the way, how do we organize this team to get the work done knowing that we need to get done first?

What do we need to learn now in order to set us up for success later?

What do we need to achieve now to provide the foundation for achievements we endeavor to make next quarter or next year?

Whom do we need to hire this quarter to support the work we need to do next quarter?

How much capital do we need to raise this year to support the work we aim to do over the next two years?

These are all variations of elements that may be helpful in setting up a team with the clarity needed to get the job done.

Clarity is about ensuring the team understands what work matters now and, more importantly often, to what work or priorities we are saying "no".

As the saying goes, "when everything matters, nothing matters." One of the most common complaints we hear from teams when facilitating 360 reviews for clients is that the leader has not yet learned to say "no". When leaders allow a culture where nothing is prioritized, nothing is said no to, or indecision flourishes, the team inevitably flounders.

In a well-run organization, the most impactful days of the CEO's job may be those at the beginning and end of each quarter:

  • Ensuring the team is well-organized around digesting the learnings from the previous quarter.
  • Ensuring the team is healthfully and effectively debating and setting the priorities and plan for the coming quarter.

This is much higher-leverage work than anything the CEO might do at her desk in front of a screen.

Clarity of norms

Another critical piece of clarity is ensuring the team is aligned on the how of the work. What are the cultural and working norms we are signing up for as a part of this team? How do we agree to treat each other? How do we agree to collaborate and communicate?

If as a team we are not clear on these elements, a bunch of things become hard:

  • How do we know whom to hire?
  • How do we make decisions?
  • How do we resolve conflict?
  • When do I need to be online?
  • How quickly do I need to respond to email?
  • What kinds of work necessitate a meeting?

Effective culture is about so much more than a list of values tacked on a wall.

The core of company building is about bringing together a disparate group of humans around a shared mission and helping them find their way to working effectively together against that mission.

That 'effectively' piece plays a huge role in the success or failure of any organization.

Effectiveness begins with a clear set of values. Values are our agreements on how we commit to engaging in the work together. Without clear, descriptive values, we have the what and the who of the work but we lack the how.

Well-crafted values will help a team navigate large and small decisions whether or not the founders or leaders are present.

Many companies fail to effectively design values. Others fail to find a way to ensure the values become a part of the fabric of daily conversation in the organization. Ensuring values are clear, action-driving, and an active part of the daily culture is a key part of the CEO's responsibility.

Beyond values, clear working norms are a critical and often overlooked part of a well-run organization.

I often speak with CEOs who are frustrated by a lack of communication within their company, a perceived lack of long hours by a certain team member, or by the chaos created by managing key projects across a half-dozen communications platforms. When I probe, inquiring how they have worked to ensure the team is clear on working norms or communication norms, and whether those are agreed upon and written down somewhere, the answer is typical 'no'.

The CEO does not need to draft or solely enforce the working norms. That might be done by another member of leadership or in collaboration with a leadership team. But the CEO is accountable for ensuring the norms are clear. And she is accountable for modeling those norms.

Want to ensure your team focuses only on the agreed-upon high-priority work? Ensure you do too.

Want to ensure the team thoughtfully leverages email, Slack, or live meetings? Ensure you do too.

Want to ensure your team takes vacations to avoid burnout and increase perspective? Ensure you do too.

Clarity on norms is a fundamental part of creating a high-impact, high-leverage organization. When progress is stalled or teams are burning out, there is often some gold to be mined here.

Care

The final piece of resourcing the team, and perhaps the most critical, care. The care piece captures the very human elements of supporting the people who are coming together for this crazy ride called company building.

If we fail to refactor our code and address technical debt, our code base ultimately stops working.

If we fail to support our people, the efficacy of our team will crack and eventually halt.

The care piece is about ensuring each person in the organization is supported in the human elements of their professional journey.

To whom do they turn when they have questions about their work? How can they find partnership in their exploration of their career and income progression? Where can they turn during the workday when life happens? When their kid is in the hospital or a parent gets sick.

An organization of 30 or 300 people will be far more effective when each person has this level of support than when work is allowed to be a place where people get lost or forgotten. As my own coach once put it to me, "If you think people will work hard for fear, wait until you see what they will do for love."

Give your people a place to belong, a place they can find support for their humanity as well as their talent, and your team will surprise you on a regular basis.

What does success look like?

Now that we have taken a look at the core accountabilities of the CEO role, we might explore for a moment what success looks like.

It is worth noting none of the accountabilities above are easily or permanently 'checked off' or even easily monitored on a spreadsheet. As a result, for those of us prone to over-achieving or self-criticism, this can be a tough setup.

Particularly in my early years as a CEO, I felt I was perpetually failing. I am not certain what I was looking to as my bar for success.

Perhaps consistent and unending exponential growth? That was never going to happen. Were we going to be the first company in history to grow consistently for always?

Perhaps consistently completing my task list every day? My unending, increasingly grueling, self-prescribed list of things that were mine to do every day. Maybe if I was reliably and fatiguelessly productive then I would finally deem myself a success.

I do not know what it would have taken. But I know, in those early years, I never experienced it. I felt I was always failing.

My coach was kind to me.

He knew this quality of mine. He knew I was my own ruthless taskmaster. And as a result he would show up to our sessions with compassion. He would ask me, gently, how I was.

"How are you really?" he would ask. And often the tears would well in my eyes.

"I am having a hard time, Jerry," I would confess, "I feel like I am failing."

Jerry, being Jerry, always knew the right questions to ask.

"Is the vision clear?"

"Is the company capitalized?"

"Is the right senior team in place?"

"Is the team supported?"

I would cautiously answer each question in the affirmative.

"Well then," he would conclude with grace, "It sounds like you are doing your job."

Damn.

Maybe if this family Midas-touch venture capitalist turned CEO coach thought I was doing my job I could go a bit more gentle on myself.

It is worth noting what Jerry did not ask me.

He did not ask if the company was worth a billion dollars. He did not ask if revenue was growing quickly. He did not ask whether we had recently won any big-name customer contracts or raised capital from another famous investor.

It is ok to want those things. Many of us do. But that is not the job. Those vanity achievements are not the true barometer of CEO success.

How then to succeed?

With a clearer view of what the CEO's job actually is, we can do a better job of setting ourselves up for success.

For most of the founder, CEO-types I meet (myself included), the old way, or the way we begin, is often about anxiety and grind. We lack clarity: clarity on what the job is, clarity on how to do it, clarity on whether we have what it takes, and clarity on where to even begin. The resulting anxiety can prove overwhelming.

Many of us, to combat the anxiety, turn to over-work: the grind, the 80-hour weeks, the "it does not matter what I am doing so long that I am doing" approach to just putting in raw effort.

We are not even sure what we are hanging onto, but we are damned determined to be white-knuckled about it.

The new, the way of holding the job and accomplishing the work that is more likely to lead to real success, impact, and creativity, is about clarity and connection.

Now that we know the job is about holding the vision, recruiting the right team, and resourcing that team, the opportunity exists to focus our work like a magnifying glass focuses the sunlight to start a fire.

Clear vision. Clear communication. Clear values. Clear working norms. That is the job. Clarity comes from slowness, thoughtfulness, and reflection. Rushing, raw effort, 80-hour weeks; these things get in the way of clarity. They are better left behind.

The job is also about connection. We are wise also to leave behind the days of locking ourselves in a room alone to figure our way out of the company's biggest problems. The new way is about partnership, openness, and collaboration: with our team, with our partners, with our investors, or with our investors.

In the new, to set ourselves and our companies up for success, the work begins with setting ourselves up for clarity and connection. This is why the most relevant tools of a CEO set up for success include:

  • Rest
  • Community
  • Self-care
  • Meditation
  • Proper nutrition

These tools and the like are critical for properly preparing ourselves for the job at hand.

If these tools are not yet a part of the way you set yourself up for success in the job, it is time to reconsider your approach. The old way will only take you so far. If you are reading this post, you are likely already aware of the limits of the old way. Welcome to the new!

Closing thoughts

A few tools I have written about that may be helpful to you as you come to greater understanding of what the CEO role really is:

  1. Morning practices for the modern CEO. Your mornings are a tremendous ally. They are a great time to put your own oxygen mask on first and set yourself up for the day. Here are a few of my favorite tools for mornings.
  2. Here is a primer on goal setting for high-performance teams.
  3. A crowd-favorite, here is my argument for why CEOs ought to work 40-hour weeks and not more. Something fun to consider.

Wherever you find yourself in your exploration of your own leadership style and role, you are not alone. If I can be of support on your journey, please drop me a line.

With love from Los Angeles,

-Matt