Top 6 Characteristics of the Best Startup CEOs
Becoming a CEO is easy--just take a few minutes to change your job description on social-media sites and call up a printer to send you some new business cards. Presto! You’re now a CEO.
But claiming the title and excelling in the role are, of course, completely different things. What separates the hoards of self-styled CEOs of half-baked startups and those that actually build world-changing companies?
Someone recently asked just this on question-and-answer site Quora, and some of the tech world’s top names, including investors, founders, and those who research the topic, took the time to weigh in with lists of key characteristics. What traits emerged as consistent themes?
Top VC Mark Suster responded to the question with a simple 13-point list of key traits. Resiliency is No. 4. Robert Scoble, who studies CEOs for Rackspace and has interviewed thousands of CEOs, also lists a dozen important qualities--which often overlap with Suster’s--but also provides a bit more explanation for each. For example, he agrees that resiliency is central and offers a famous example.
"Airbnb took 1,000 days for its business to start working," he writes. "Imagine if they gave up on Day 999? The best CEOs find a way to dig in and keep going, even when it seems everything is going against them."
When it comes to building a successful startup, it seems people often matter as much as product, and companies soar or sink based on the quality of the teams assembled by the CEO. A knack for identifying and attracting top talent is therefore essential, as is a certain degree of cold-eyed resolve to act when someone turns out not to be the correct fit for the company.
"Whenever you find a really great CEO, you find someone who has a knack for hiring," notes Scoble. "That means selling other people on your dream or your business. Especially when it doesn't seem all that important or seems very risky." But he adds: "I used to work for a CEO who was awesome at hiring but couldn't fire anyone. Doomed the business." Entrepreneur R.G. Riles put this slightly differently, noting that the best CEOs build teams that can execute without constant oversight.
No matter how smart you are, you’ll be smarter if you lean on others’ intelligence as well. In order to do that you have to be truly open to feedback (and the possibility that you don’t have all the solutions).
"Many CEOs want to tell you what they are doing, but the best ones listen to feedback and even do something with that feedback," explains Scoble. "My favorites even give credit back." Suster seems to be getting at something similar when he lists "ability to adjust" on his list of key traits, while Riles notes that a truly great CEO "realizes the company will not get far if he is the only one…coming up with the big, creative ideas and/or solutions."
Risk Awareness (and Tolerance)
The ability to embrace and tolerate uncertainty and risk comes in at No. 7 on Suster’s list of CEO characteristics, but entrepreneur John Greathouse goes into more detail about this essential ability to push forward while still seeing all the pitfalls and the low odds of starting up.
The ideal CEO, he writes, is "assured of the achievability of long-term goals yet nervous about the attainability of near-term milestones. This schizophrenic mindset ensures that an entrepreneur maintains an unyielding belief in the manifestation of their vision while never taking for granted the execution of their startup's most basic tasks."
No matter how great your people skills or impressive your intellectual powers, these skills will come to nothing if you can’t also dream big and offer a plausible road map to reach those outsize goals. “Let's be honest," comments Scoble. "There are a lot of nice CEOs, but if you don't have the ability to build a product that matters to people, then no one will remember your name.”
Though passion is conspicuously absent from Scoble’s list, it does squeeze onto Suster’s at No. 13, while Riles insists a great startup CEO "loves the premise of the startup so much that he routinely works 80-hour weeks." Greathouse agrees that great CEOs must be, in his words, "fervent."
"Successful entrepreneurs are not thwarted by challenges," Greathouse writes. "They always find a way through, around, under, or over the obstacles in their path. Failure isn't on the menu."
What qualities would you list?
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.