When You’re a CEO Who Does Not Know How to be a CEO

In my opinion there’s no guaranteed recipe for success, but one can share anecdotes that led to others’ achievements, and hopefully these will resonate with some of our readers’ needs.

You see, one of the reasons I was invited to participate in this blog is to serve as a conduit to the members, startups, and small businesses of the Idea Foundry — to share their challenges and their successes, especially through the lens of grassroots, bootstrapped entrepreneurship. The Idea Foundry is a “clubhouse for makers” I founded that has grown from a small garage to the largest and most active makerspace on the planet.

I’m glad to say that having walked the walk myself, I can sympathize with a lot of the issues that many of our business-oriented members have and hopefully can save them some time, money, sweat, blood, tears and/or heartache by sharing some of my mistakes — and solutions to them.

For example - I was grateful a few months ago when a member at the Idea Foundry, an entrepreneur running his business here, reached out to me with an email whose subject read:  “I have no idea how to be a CEO”. In the email, he confessed to me his challenges evolving from a freelancer to the chief executive of his company, and he asked if I had any advice.

I told him I completely sympathized because I had undergone the same metamorphosis.

These kinds of questions used to surprise me, but they no longer do. Just because you have the talent to create a product or service, and you had $5 to print business cards with your name and title on it, doesn’t mean you necessarily have the knowledge to be an effective CEO.

When I go to entrepreneurship meetups, I like to perform a simple survey. I ask everyone in the room to raise their hand if — when they were a young person, or in college or a recent graduate — it was their intention to start a business.  Often it’s the vast minority. In fact, the last time I did this I was in a room of 30 very successful CEOs (several running multimillion dollar businesses), and only one person raised their hand.

In retrospect, this isn’t terribly surprising.

Let’s look backward at the path of many startups or small businesses. The trick to starting a successful business isn’t a good product — it’s a good problem. If you can identify a problem that needs solving, often you can find a solution for it and that’s what your customers want.

And who finds problems? People who work.  Engineers. Manufacturers. Nurses. Soldiers. Moms.  People providing services, whether they’re getting paid to or not.  Not folks with their feet up on their desk, hands behind their head, striving to dream of the next big thing.  And if any of these people find a good problem and work hard to find the right solution to it — then bam! They’ve found themselves in the business world without necessarily having gone through the conventional business education process.  As a result, they’re now in charge of themselves, their product, their customers, their staff, their company — and they don’t really know what they’re doing.

So, in sum: If you are a founder, a CEO of a small business or you provide your own freelance service, and if you have any hint of impostor syndrome because you feel like you don’t know how to manage your company, don’t deserve to manage your company, don’t feel like you’ve gone through all the right steps to get to where you are — this post is to tell you that’s perfectly OK.  You are absolved of any guilt about what you think you should have done to get to this point.

What you should do is join a peer group; find a collective of people like you who are struggling through the same issues (and hopefully which has a few elder mentors who can provide some leadership and guidance) and just be prepared to learn.

Even be prepared to shift your role in your own company; if you find someone who will make a better CEO than you, then you should have a healthy enough ego that you can step aside and let them run the company. You’ve already done your part to start it; you’ve already done the hard work of finding a product, a service, or your passion. Now you just have to learn how to grow everything effectively.

My next post will highlight more suggestions about how to catch up as quickly as possible to become the effective CEO you want to be.




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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.