How to Make Yourself Into CEO Material
Belief in talent can be dangerous.
Decades of scientific research shows that believing your inherent aptitude for a skill is set at birth is de-motivating. In comparison to those who believe that success is mainly down to hard work, those that believe ability to excel is fixed are less able to handle setbacks and often underperform.
Which is the perverse situation many founders put themselves in when they think about occupying the CEO's chair. That some folks are simply "CEO material" and some are not is a not uncommon belief among entrepreneurs and investors. But it's dead wrong, according to veteran entrepreneur and VC Ben Horowitz on his blog recently.
In the post, the partner at Andreessen Horowtiz recalls a friend asking if CEOs are born or made, and replies: "That's kind of like asking if Jolly Ranchers are grown or made."
If you're building a start-up and worried that leading a team feels incredibly unnatural to you, don't despair, writes Horowitz. There's a very good reason for that and it's not that you'll never make it as an executive: being a CEO is highly unnatural:
It generally takes years for a founder to develop the CEO skill set and it is usually extremely difficult for me to tell whether or not she will make it.
In athletics, some things like becoming a sprinter can be learned relatively quickly because they take a natural motion and refine it. Others, like boxing, take much longer to master, because they require lots of unnatural motions. For example, when going backwards in boxing, it's critically important to pick up your back foot first, because if you get hit while walking backwards the natural way—picking up your front foot first--often leads to getting knocked cold. Learning to make this unnatural motion feel natural takes a great deal of practice. If you do what feels most natural as a CEO, then you may also get knocked cold.
Being CEO requires lots of unnatural motion. From an anthropological standpoint, it is natural to do things that make people like you. It enhances your chances for survival. Yet to be a good CEO, in order to be liked in the long run, you must do many things that will upset people in the short run. Unnatural things.
The post goes on to identify giving feedback as one of the most unnatural CEO skills, offering lots of great advice on how to perfect this tricky to develop ability. If you're struggling with feedback for your team, take a few minutes to read his nitty gritty suggestions.
But the fundamental takeaway is simpler and more powerful than handy tips: Don't give up on yourself as not having CEO potential too early. Lack of early apparent talent doesn't mean you can't make yourself into a kick butt company leader.
"If you are a founder CEO and you feel awkward or incompetent when doing some of these things and believe there is no way that you'll be able to do it when your company is 100 or 1,000 people, welcome to the club. That's exactly how I felt. So did every CEO that I've ever met. This is the process. This is how you get made," concludes Horowitz.
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.