Start-up CEO vs. Expansion CEO

Most company founders embark on a start-up journey with aspirations to see the company through to greatness while maintaining the role of the CEO.  However, the role of startup CEO and expansion-stage CEO differ greatly.  They require completely different skill sets, and it’s extremely rare for a founder to have both start-up and growth-stage skills.  A majority of founders end up recruiting replacements to take over the companies they created.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is a common reality that accompanies the shift from searching for a business model to executing and scaling it effectively.

A founding CEO must be tactical, hands-on, gets stuff done, where a professional manager CEO focuses on the vision/strategy, building a senior team, and guiding the senior team to execution.

Navigating a company through the expansion stage takes operational expertise. You have to know how to recruit senior managers who have specific functional expertise, and you must be able to establish an operating rhythm that gets your growing team working toward the right goals. As your company transitions to the next stage, you must transition with it, and as you do you are faced with three paths.

1) Adapt to the New Reality

If you are dead set on remaining CEO, then you need to pick up the new skills needed to address the blind spots and manage your company’s expansion. That means you have to augment those skills that got you where you are now: your audacity to do something new, your passion to inspire others to take risks, and the tenacity to create and disrupt markets. In addition, you need to focus on managing through others (this one can be the biggest challenge) and developing a rhythm for your team.

It’s extremely rare for a founder to have both start-up and growth-stage skills, and it’s even less likely that you can pick them up as you go. So, consider whether you’d hire yourself to run your company now that you are expanding — chances are, the honest answer is no.

2) Assemble a Skilled Team

Another option is to surround yourself with an executive team that brings the growth-stage experience and expertise your company needs.  For most companies entering the expansion stage, a sales and marketing-focused COO is the right choice.  However, if you need more cover on overall operations, financial forecasting, and legal matters, then a CFO makes sense.

When it comes down to it, companies aren’t run by highly effective individuals; they’re run by highly effective teams. Most successful CEO’s will tell you to surround yourself with the best people possible who are experts in the areas you are weak in.  This will allow you to focus on your strengths.

3) Transition into a New Role

The majority of start-up CEOs recruit their replacements as the company grows beyond $15 million in revenue. It’s that simple, and it’s usually the right choice. Work with your board to bring on a new CEO and transition into a new role. Don’t let your ego drive an emotional reaction. Put the company first, just as you always have, and you will come to the conclusion that it’s the right decision.