Plan CEO: Why every founder should aim for the right leadership

The transition from Founder to CEO is one of the biggest challenges first-time founders tackle because it requires a change in mindset that can be a shock to the system. 

So, we thought it would be helpful to outline the role of the CEO and lay out some of the challenges and the key differences to help you find, or become the right person to lead your business to sustainable long-term success.

The Founder vs. CEO mindset

As a founder, you are the visionary who identified the problem and created the solution your business is built on. You sourced the early funding or even bootstrapped the business to get it to where it is today. You will also have a vision for what you want your product or service and business to look like; however, delivering this vision and creating a commercially viable business is not easy.

While in the early days, you need to turn your hand to anything and everything, this situation needs to change quickly as you start to gain traction. You need to go from a mindset of taking responsibility for everything and trying to fix everyone’s issues to one of leadership and building a team with expertise.  

The decision-making process of a founder vs a CEO also needs to change. Early on you will often have relied on your instinct and made quick-fire decisions to keep things moving at pace. 

While speed is good, and urgency is fine, as a CEO, you now need to take a far more strategic and considered view and think of the longer-term implications of your decisions. 

You must be clear on the essential data required to make a more informed decision. Not every decision will be correct, but not making a decision is, in effect, a decision that will impact the team’s morale and the tone you’re setting for the business.  

Understanding the role of the CEO

As a CEO, time must be dedicated to setting longer-term goals and aligning the right resources to achieve the vision. Mapping out resources such as funding, staff, premises, marketing, among others, in a cohesive plan with timelines and budgets is challenging.

Along with this level of planning comes a requirement for assessing and managing risk. Too often, in the early stages, Founders are drawn to any potential income stream regardless of the long-term impact. Whether you take on investment or not, you should ensure alignment with your board on risk appetite, and as CEO, your role is to create clarity and focus.

As a founder, you will have been clear on the culture you want to create, and the values right from the outset. Core values should remain, but how they are embodied changes as you grow, and it is the role of the CEO to deliver this. Some early team members who thrive on the chaos will find building processes and repeatability difficult and need to find the next startup to influence and propel. 

Essential skills of a successful CEO 

As the CEO, you need specific skills to succeed, and as a founder with ambitions to be the CEO, you need to be honest with yourself and identify if you possess those skills.  

Communication 

Building a culture and inspiring a workforce requires good communication skills. Not every Founder is blessed with these skills. 

Communication is at the heart of every successful organisation and is vital to building a solid culture. You must be clear and transparent with your team at every level of the business; they must know the company’s direction and feel part of the process. 

Adaptability

As a founder, you will have been uncomfortable for most of the journey and been able to respond from your gut in the moment. 

However, in transitioning from Founder to CEO, while you must retain that comfort with being uncomfortable, you now need to use your critical data to make the best decisions, and be able to share, and articulate, these with the wider team calmly and consistently so they can navigate sharp changes in direction.

Leadership 

It seems obvious, but leadership is central to a good CEO. Moving from a founder to a leader, you need to communicate always and often, be consistent in what people can expect from you, create clarity and focus, simplify, and get out of the way. 

In some ways, it’s almost the opposite of what you need to get something off the ground in the first place.

Grow as a CEO

If you think taking on the CEO is the right route then there are a few things you can do to help you on your way. 

Mentorship and a Peer Network

There are plenty of great leaders and CEOs in the ecosystem who have gathered a wealth of experience. Finding the right mentor will make you ask and, more importantly, answer the right questions.

And, you’re not alone; find your tribe of fellow founders with whom you can be genuine and honest and share, even cry and laugh together, and not pretend how well everyone is doing.

Executive Leadership Coaching 

No Olympian makes that journey without a raft of coaches and a support team. A coach is a strategic thinking partner and sounding board who helps to bring out and develop all of your talents in a way that supports your continued growth.

Continuous lifelong learning

There is no secret sauce in professional and personal development. Every successful CEO is committed to continuous learning and finds their own approach, whether it’s courses, coaching, individual learning, or a combination; however, as a leader, you need to be committed to growing. 

From Founder to CEO

So, the journey from Founder to CEO can be a challenging transition. It requires a lot of honesty and the ability to change. However, if you do it right, it could see you successfully deliver that vision you had right back at the start with a new band of true friends who will be with you for life.

Photo: Rebrand Cities

Kirsty Bathgate

Kirsty Bathgate is the Founder and CEO of Gearing for Growth and an accredited professional executive coach.

She works with Founders, CEOs and Leaders of high-growth businesses to support them on the journey to develop strong leadership skills, values-led cultures, high-performance teams and effective boards.

Having taken that journey herself, she has over 25 years of experience leading, growing businesses, and coaching leaders and teams.

She has been privileged to work with more than 200 leaders across a broad range of sectors. Kirsty also mentors and Chairs the Board of Cyrenians.

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