Starting and running a company long-term requires an extensive set of varied skills, but one of the most important for CEO-Founders is vision. The vision to see a gap in the marketplace and how you can fill it. The vision to keep your company on track as challenges arise and opportunities shift.
A team can share your vision. A trusted associate or advisor can share your vision. But within a founder-led company, only the CEO-Founder can typically see the whole picture and add new dimensions to it.
It's great if you find "owning the vision" to be gratifying, but wouldn't it be nice to step back (even temporarily) and catch your breath without worrying if the sky is about to fall? I recently found myself in the position where I felt confident that I had the right team to allow me to step back for the first time in my career. While it was an incredibly hard decision, it turned out to be one of my best. Here's how you can, too:
The hardest part of being a CEO-Founder is actually doing the job of CEO. I've gone the route of hiring "professional managers" to run my company (with disastrous results). That experience burned me and pushed me to get involved again with every aspect of my company. In many ways, it was like rebuilding the company from scratch and re-engineering how to do each job. It required a switch into a micro-manager mode, and that's not something most people can sustain.
The process was painful, but it led to assembling a) the right team with b) the right training and c) the right processes. You can step back from the day-to-day, but you can't step back and have your company continue to run profitably without those three critical elements. Anything short of that can lead to massive mistakes.
The trap that I see a lot of bootstrapped CEOs fall into (I've done it myself) is trying to do everything so it gets done right. The biggest realization for me was that even if I could do any job in the company, I couldn't do every job in the company. It's an important distinction.
You may actually be the biggest barrier to stepping back as CEO.
The Step-Back Experiment
As hard as it may be to step back, there are a few concrete things I've learned through the process that will help you, too:
- Overwatch: Implement systems to maintain a bird's eye view of all operations. This can include using project management software, daily or weekly reporting, check-ins from department heads, etc. Out of sight is not out of mind...it weighs on your mind, and the whole point of stepping back is to free up mental bandwidth. Keeping an eye on the broad strokes through structured reporting takes ambiguous worrying out of the equation. If there's a problem, you will know about it. If there is no problem, you will know there isn't one...and you won't imagine "what ifs."
- Reward yourself by easing into it: If you want to take a step back as CEO, it's going to take a lot of work. To keep motivated, reward yourself through the process. The first tasks to give up are things you're the weakest at doing or dislike the most. Even if you're skeptical about giving up tasks and responsibilities, you're rewarding yourself by clearing the worst items from your to-do list. By focusing on your strengths, your company will do better and you'll feel better about your new role.
- Keep the football with you: It's important to reserve veto power, but to use it as little as possible. Regardless of your more relaxed role, the "nuclear option" needs to be on the table if the company is heading in the wrong direction. There needs to be a balance between vision and trust in your team, but sometimes you may need to unequivocally assert your role. Don't jump to this option, but don't lose it either.
Stepping back needs to be a gradual process for it to be successful. Start by handing over projects to your team and build up until you can trust their judgment to make strategic decisions, then let them deal with the consequences of those decisions. The more your team learns, the better equipped they will be to deal with the unknowns that will appear while you're enjoying what you've built.
Give it some time. It's hard to step back as CEO, but your company's future (and growth) may depend on it. You'll know that your team is on the success track when they run with creative ideas in directions that you may never have considered.