Originally published in CoFounders Lab.
I work with startup CEOs every day—from clean tech to Web 2.0, from SaaS to life science and everything in between—and I’ve seen what it takes to found and grow a successful company. Interestingly, the essential qualities you need to possess to be a founding CEO—or might be looking for in a co-founderVare not always obvious. Technical knowledge? Important, but not essential. Charismatic personality? It certainly helps, but again, not necessarily essential.
So what are the essential qualities of a successful startup CEO? Above all else, the startup CEO needs to provide a strong, stable foundation on which a company can be built. It’s about personality, values, goals, and skills. Based on my experience, I’d say these are the top eight characteristics:
1. Vision. A startup founder CEO needs to be a visionary, someone who sees a business opportunity or an opportunity in a market place and knows how to solve it. Frequently, the best startups I see are led by people who have identified a major pain point in a marketplace and understand how to address and fix that problem. Once the CEO has clarified the vision, he keeps clarifying it, with a look to the long-term. A strong CEO always has this vision in mind, using it to inform all business decisions and guide company growth.
2. The ability to execute. Having a vision is great, but without the ability to act on it, you’re not going to get very far. A good startup CEO knows how to take the vision and break it down into attainable milestones. This ability to break things down into chunks is a skill and an art. Strategic thinking and planning is key: how can you gain traction and move your company forward?
Contact Early Growth Financial Services for assistance in identifying your milestones.
3. Administrative skills. This one might be counter-intuitive—don’t CEOs hire others to take care of company administration? Yes and no. Part of this administrative skill is a gift for finding and hiring the right talent—and the ability to delegate and let go. Obviously a successful CEO cannot possibly waste her time on all of the administrative details of running a company. But ultimately the CEO is the master administrator: organizing, rallying, making sure the tracks are clean and the trains are on time. The startup CEO needs to be able to create the company, build the team, identify resources, and solve problems—while keeping track of it all.
4. Connector. Startup CEOs need to create key relationships with investors, potential partners, and the right professional services firms. Having a startup means committing yourself to a life of constant relationship development. The startup CEO also needs to act as a link—between the company and its investors, and between the company and its product. The startup CEO who is linked to the product vision is the CEO who will be able to realize this vision.
5. Passion. I recently read a great book called Hearts, Smarts, Guts, and Luck. It said that each great start-up leader has some combination of these traits. In my mind, the most important ingredient is heart. Passion defines an entrepreneur; it’s the motivation and determination to make something happen. Passion is what keeps a leader going and what inspires others to follow. I challenge anyone to show me an entrepreneur without passion.
6. Communication. Passion is paramount but, unfortunately, it won’t get you very far if you don’t have the ability to communicate that passion to others — on a daily basis. Startup CEOs need to love to talk about their business—internally and externally—and be skillful at doing so in a clear and compelling fashion. Can you motivate your team, even when you’re facing serious challenges? That’s the kind of communication skills a startup CEO needs.
7. Unconcerned with “popularity.” Sometimes CEOs have to make decisions that aren’t popular. When you’re running a company, you can’t always please everyone. You shouldn’t—and can’t—worry about trying to do so. CEOs need to stay true to their values and vision and make tough decisions that will ultimately benefit the company, whether that’s firing someone or breaking a partnership, or simply saying “no.” While saying “yes” might seem more tempting, too many “yeses” can throw you off-track and waste your limited time and resources. CEOs have to be willing to say the things that nobody wants to hear and do the things that nobody wants done.
8. Adaptability. MBA or not, you won’t and can’t know everything about starting your own business from day one. That’s okay. Startup CEOs don’t need to know everything; they just need to be willing and able to learn —and willing and able to change course at a moment’s notice. This is the art of the pivot, and it’s not just a lean startup principal, it’s a way of startup life. Startup CEOs are going to encounter surprises. That’s how it goes. It’s the CEO who is able to roll with it, re-strategize, and smoothly change course who will be successful.
Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list. Depending on your particular company and industry, you may need a CEO with other skills—maybe a statistics PhD with killer technical skills who can survive on three hours of sleep per night?! But, regardless of your particular details, I feel strongly that these eight characteristics are essential. If you and a potential co-founder have these eight skills, I look forward to watching your company grow!
What do you think makes for a successful startup CEO? Let us know in comments below or contact Early Growth Financial Services for startup support.
David Ehrenberg is the founder and CEO of Early Growth Financial Services, a financial services firm providing a complete suite of financial services to companies at every stage of the development process. He’s a financial expert and startup mentor, whose passion is helping businesses focus on what they do best. Follow David @EarlyGrowthFS.