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How to tell if you are not scaling as a CEO
Imagine that being a startup CEO is like being on a small boat in the middle of the ocean. When faced with the never-ending ocean, it’s easy to panic about fuel levels (something you can’t do anything about), or to focus on what to eat for dinner (something you can totally control). But your real concern should be that you’re not scaling.
When leaders focus more on actions with outcomes they can control completely or on information that is not actionable, I worry that they’re not scaling. When a CEO re-commits to inbox zero or decides to sit in on every team meeting or spends days on a financial model instead of the assumptions that drive it, I worry that they’re not scaling. As a CEO, these are the small things that you have control over and completing them gives you a sense of accomplishment, but they’re not the things that will help your company grow.
You start a company and it’s uncomfortable having no idea what will happen next, but you have to lean into the discomfort because it’s the only way. Time passes. You figure some things out. Survival instinct pushes you to get solid ground under your feet — to establish repeatable process and best practices. But growth requires that you hire talented people to take solved problems off your plate so that you can continue to lean into the discomfort and uncertainty that surrounds you and your company.
The paradox of scaling as a CEO is that you create solid ground but you never get to enjoy it. This is (part of) why being a successful CEO can be so gut-wrenching and difficult. You have to go against your personal survival instinct. Just as you master an element of your business, you need to hire someone who is narrower, but deeper in that area so you can move on to the next uncomfortable thing that you know nothing about.
Imagine you are building a social company and you are a product focused CEO. At first, you focus on building the product and finding product market fit. This is very, very hard, but you grind it out, stretch yourself and at the end of months of fear, uncertainty and doubt, you find it. The product takes off. As CEO, you don’t get to enjoy this new solid ground you worked so hard to create. You’ve got to scale — so you hire a head of product and shift your attention to learning how to monetize your audience. When sales starts working and revenue starts rolling in, you hire a head of sales and a chief revenue officer and so on.
Details matter, and there are lots of times where the best thing a CEO can do is be down in the weeds of a mission critical decision. But, don’t hide behind the details. Be honest and flag the moments when you’re actively choosing to make the world smaller rather than facing the vast uncertainty. Look for this feeling. Find it and fight it. To keep growing as a CEO, push yourself to broaden into areas you don’t understand. When you feel overwhelmed or uncertain, ask for help, get advice and work on that specific thing until you find solid ground. Then, take a breath, hire someone to build on the solid ground you discovered, and jump back into the unknown.
Even though you may be headed into uncharted territory, you have the power to define your journey if you continue the search for solid ground AND maintain your willingness to hand it off to someone else as quickly as you discover it.