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There Is No ‘I’ in CEO
(not if you’re a good CEO)

Posted on Saturday, Feb 28th 2009

By Guest Author Tony Scott

Last night, I went to a very interesting panel discussion of young Japanese-American CEOs here in Silicon Valley. The point that struck me the most was that all agreed that a great CEO is not an individual hero, but more like someone who builds and coaches a winning sports team.

If you look at the majority of those who tried to start a company but subsequently failed, you’ll mostly find very high achievers. The ranks of failed entrepreneurs are filled with people who scored at top of their class in school; or were brilliant in math, sciences, debate, or any number of activities that showed off their individual (and individualistic) capabilities.

But building a company is not a solo endeavor – it is a team exercise. The best CEOs know that they can’t be the hero who does everything themselves. They know that they will be most successful if they hire to their weaknesses, and build a team that can function well together to win.

Unfortunately, all too many would-be entrepreneurs fail to understand this core principle. They have lived their lives as high individual achievers: brilliant, hard-working and driven to succeed to be sure, but often also arrogant and willing to win at all costs. They have been rewarded in ways throughout their lives that reinforces the idea that their personal brilliance and efforts will insure their success.

That may be true if they pursue a career that rewards brilliant solo efforts, such as those who become stock analysts, research scientists, or those who pursue certain areas of medicine, the law, or academia. However, businesses are rarely built around one individual – and an individual-based business is inherently unscaleable.

If you want to build a business, not just a personally rewarding professional career, you need to be able to rally others around your vision and dream, and get them to buy into it and want to be a part of it. To do that, you also need to make sure you are ego-less enough to understand where you are strong – and most importantly, where you are weak – so you can build your “dream team”. Great CEOs build their “dream teams” by hiring to complement their own strengths, and to fill the gaps of experience and expertise on the team.

Great CEOs are not afraid to admit that they doesn’t have all the answers, because they know they can rely on the judgment of their senior staff. The best CEOs seek out senior staff members to be a part of their team who are clearly stronger in their own field of expertise than the CEO can ever hope to be – and then empower those lieutenants to do their jobs, and don’t second-guess them all the time.

So, what are the most important roles of a CEO when it comes to building a team?

  • To create a vision of why people should want to join the company, and articulate that vision concisely and consistently in a way that everyone can understand, regardless of their level inside or outside of the company.
  • To be the chief cheerleader for the company: to be always positive, even in the face of difficulty – but without crossing that fine line of coming across as either blind to reality, or even worse, someone who is always “spinning” the news.
  • To be the chief talent agent for the company – hiring the best possible talent at all levels – and being relentless about wanting to bring on the best.
  • To be a compassionate leader who evaluates everyone fairly, and who not only praises those who succeed, but lets those who are on the margin know where they stand.

A good CEO works with those who have the desire to succeed to see if they can improve. A great CEO also has the courage to let go those who ultimately can’t deliver results. Although that may be painful and bad for the individual who is let go, great CEOs know that may be necessary for the success of the company, and the good of the whole.

The CEO panelists I listened to last night also agreed on one other thing. When asked what their biggest mistakes had been, among the many that these confident, secure individuals mentioned, there was one that was consistent: they all said that they had been too arrogant about their own capabilities when they were first starting out as CEOs.

It may be a fine line at times, but there is a big difference between being confident and having a healthy ego, and being an arrogant egomaniac. People may respect your intellect and brilliance, but they don’t generally want to follow someone whom they perceive as being an arrogant know-it-all who is unwilling to listen to others. As Professor Andreis Van Dam told his then-student Randy Pausch (the famous “Last Lecture” professor from Carnegie Mellon): “It’s such a shame that people perceive you as so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”

That’s a life lesson all aspiring entrepreneurs should take to heart.

A successful CEO needs to be a visionary, a talent scout, a cheerleader, a team leader and a coach, without coming across as being arrogant. If you want to start and build a successful company, make sure you truly have those capabilities – or make sure your ego doesn’t get in the way of bringing on a CEO who does.

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Great article, Sramana,
I also think there a few high profile CEO’s who have a capital “I” in CEO & have earned very high salaries. It can give people the impression that success has a big ego. Effective entrepreneurs need to be team players and respect their staff and customers at all levels.

Nancy Miller Saturday, February 28, 2009 at 5:03 PM PT

Tony,

What about the legendary Steve Jobs?

Sramana Mitra Saturday, February 28, 2009 at 6:44 PM PT

Good comments. Its hard to put down a list and say this is a list of things a CEO stands for. A long term thinking, unwavering focus, willingness to take risks and a people orientation are necessary qualities. Steering the ship is what it is all about ….

Sum Saturday, February 28, 2009 at 10:11 PM PT

Sramana,

Steve Jobs is of course an exception – “I” is at least squared in “Insanely Great Genius”. If an entrepreneur is essentially creating a brand new industry, or completely turning an existing industry model into something new, then being an iconoclastic visionary is probably a required character trait.

But that isn’t the case for most entrepreneurs – even those who fervently believe they are as brilliant and visionary as Steve Jobs. Most of those who have had that belief have found out the hard way that they are no Steve Jobs.

Remember, even Steve Jobs had to be kicked out of Apple for a while – and I would argue that he probably learned a little bit better how to lead a team and get results from others from that experience.

I think I will do a follow up piece on this next week, talking about the differences between the very few industry changing visionary CEOs that we have seen, versus CEOs who create success, but not necessarily on an industry changing scale.

Tony Scott Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 12:41 PM PT

That’s a good idea, Tony. I just want us to address the iconoclasts who do have a rather important role to play in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Not only Steve Jobs. Rupert Murdoch, Richard Branson, and many others who have gone very far belong in that category.

I could even cite several who belong in that category whom you and I both know well.

Sramana Mitra Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 1:26 PM PT

Well written article Tony- Most of the times the chief talent agent stuff get lost due to arrogance. I feel the 4 roles that you outlined are definitely there in the beginning stages of the start-up where entrepreneurs struggle to get all the pieces working together. It gets lost once the $$$ flow in as it gives a degree of self assurance that turns in to arrogance. During this transistion, the whole process of making it a big company gets lost and a sense of personal achievement takes over. What I mean by personal achievement are attributed to two things?-
1) The entreprenuer’s net worth has increased now
2) A sense of achievement that s/he has built something from scratch- This gives an invincible feeling and allows amazing rigidity towards any feedback or self criticism

This is what I have observed based on my experience. The way to solve this to surround with people who have the courage to contradict the entrepreneur who is successful- But then everyone wants their in-group who can keep on saying YES to whatever they say.

This is a huge catch 22 situation whereby balancing passion, ego and performance will be the biggest critical success factor.

Prakash

Prakash Gurumoorthy Saturday, March 7, 2009 at 7:37 AM PT
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