The proverbial buck may stop at the CEO's desk, but that doesn't mean he or she should ride along for every step of its journey. On the contrary, the best CEOs know when to step in and, more important, when to get out of the way. At a startup, that distinction is harder to nail down because it shifts as the organization evolves.
When I joined Udemy, there were only about a dozen of us. In those early days, I was involved in most things happening in the organization, but that couldn't last--a reality some CEOs fail to prepare for. We hired lots of smart people to take ownership of different parts of the business, and they don't need me and my "brilliant" suggestions (but might not feel they can tell me that directly).
Here's how the price of failing to delegate can be greater than just misplaced priorities.
It blocks business innovation
One definition of the CEO's job is identifying and removing constraints in the organization. If we aren't hitting our big, mission-critical goals consistently, I need to take a closer look. But I'm not riding in to tell everyone what to do and save the day; my role is to be separate and objective enough to cut through the clutter and clear a path so my team can succeed. It's more art than science, knowing when to step back and let others lead.
I've seen and heard how meddling CEOs can stifle creativity and innovation. For example, I know of a CEO who got super-involved in a product redesign, down to the level of choosing font sizes. The design team became so preoccupied with churning out work they thought the CEO would like, they weren't thinking as much about their actual customers. They stressed out before every meeting with CEO and spent time perfecting their presentations to him instead of experimenting and doing design explorations. I don't think any CEO wants that outcome.
It misdirects CEO focus
As CEO, I'm always weighing what I consider the highest and best uses of my time. I ask myself, what are the things only I can do by virtue of being in this unique role. That's a good place for any CEO to start: naming the areas that definitely fall on your shoulders alone. For me, that includes things like dealing with our board and investors, being the most visible face of the company, and publicly communicating our perspective on issues affecting the people who learn and teach on our platform or are thinking about doing so.
Still, there can be a temptation for CEOs to stick their noses deeper into the weeds. CEOs are go-getters and problem-solvers. Our entire mission is to build successful companies, so why not jump in wherever we think we can lend a helping hand, especially those pet projects we're fired up about? It's can be lonely at the top, too, and it may be a nice change to hunker down with a collaborative team.
Don't do it, even if it means giving up your pet project. Frankly, the subject-matter experts you've hired will do it better.
It damages morale and culture
When the CEO micromanages, it takes a toll on morale too--and may send talented employees running for the doors. When you hire smart, capable people and then behave in a way that suggests you don't trust them to do the work or think you know better, it's going to breed resentment. Talent is something to hang on to, not alienate.
Even if those employees don't quit, you're still in bad shape because you won't be getting their best work. In another situation I'm familiar with, a CEO didn't delegate or give her team room to perform, so people started self-censoring. Who's going to tell the CEO that her idea sucks? So, you're left with sucky ideas rising to the top. Or people will doubt themselves and wonder if their thoughts are really worth sharing, since the CEO is signaling that they can't do their jobs without her, whether she's in the room or not.
As CEO, I'm aware what I do and say carries extra weight. There will always be problems or initiatives where you really want to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty with the team. Maybe you think you have the right expertise or you've done something similar before. Or you just can't resist a juicy challenge.
But that's not the CEO's job. Back off and delegate to the smart people you've surrounded yourself with and trust them. They probably don't need you, which is as it should be, and humility is another good trait for CEOs to embrace.