What is the CEO’s job?

The CEO role is the most-hyped and least understood. Let’s get clear on the work at hand.

What is the CEO’s job?

I am not sure what my job actually is!

As a coach, I meet with several new CEOs in any given week. One of the questions I like to ask in initial conversations is “What do you hold to be your accountabilities in your role as CEO?”

Getting clear on the CEO’s accountabilities

The good news is that it is possible to define the accountabilities of the CEO role such that the job is right-sized. Such clarity also invites us as leaders to see ourselves as part of a larger whole. Yes, we have a role to play, and it is a big role, but the outcome is on our shoulders. Not on my shoulders.

  1. To hold the vision
  2. To recruit the team needed to execute that vision
  3. To resource that team with: a. Capital b. Clarity c. Care
  • What might be in the way?
  • What is taking up this leader’s time and intention that is not actually within her job description?
  • Where are we underutilizing the team around this leader?
  • Where are we missing critical team members?
  • Where might this leader, as I often did, be standing in her own way?

Could that really be possible?

Early-stage founding CEOs may read the definition above and think “What a luxury that would be! One day, maybe, I will have that job.” And frankly, if that is you, you may be right. I would posit that it is not that this description is inaccurate for your role, but you may actually be holding two roles at once. And one of those roles is overly burdensome in the early days. You are holding the role of CEO, and you are also holding the role of the founder.

  • Identifying a prospective need in the market
  • Learning about potential customers and the specifics of their pains or needs
  • Validating an approach to addressing those needs through research, testing, and iteration
  • Matching those learnings with a viable business model to create a path toward building a business
  • I need to be the company’s product genius
  • It is my job to have unique insights on the market unavailable to anyone else
  • I need to set the pace for the team. First in, last out of the office. Lead sled-dog.
  • I need to protect the team from bad news. I am their shield from the world so they can focus without fear.
  • I need to take on any role for which we do not have the right leader in place.

Hold the vision

The first accountability of the CEO is to hold the vision.

  • We are just trying to survive!
  • We need to get to the next funding round, then we will have time to think bigger.
  • Right now, it is all about validating our near-term direction. There is no point in thinking long term because so much might change.
  • What is our purpose? (What change are we looking to effect in the world?)
  • What does success look like?
  • What are our milestones along the way?
  • How do we want the world to be different?
  • What do we want our customers to be experiencing?
  • What are our key business metrics at this stage? (Revenue, customer count, etc.)
  • Where do we need to be by the end of this quarter in order to be on track for our one-year vision?
  • What dependencies exist in our one-year vision and what needs prioritization in the next quarter as a result?
  • What work would we be foolish to ignore in this next quarter if we are to stay on track for our one-year vision?

Recruit and retain the team

The second accountability of the CEO is to recruit and retain the team needed to execute the vision.

Resource the team

The third accountability of the CEO is to resource the team with capital, clarity, and care.

Capital

Resourcing the team with capital begins with ensuring the company has a sound business model. There should be a clear understanding of how, now or in the future, the company will have more cash in the bank at the end of the month than in the beginning. We should understand, or be working to clearly understand, how customers will come to value and pay for our product or service as well as how we will acquire those customers for less than they pay us.

  • Getting cashflow positive
  • Funding from customers
  • Bank debt
  • Strategic investment (investment from prospective partners or acquirers)

Clarity

The second element of resourcing the team is clarity. Clarity is synthesized in the following two questions:

  1. Are we as a team aligned on where we are going?
  2. Are we as a team in agreement on how we will work together to get there?
  • Ensuring the team is well-organized around digesting the learnings from the previous quarter.
  • Ensuring the team is healthfully and effectively debating and setting the priorities and plan for the coming quarter.
  • How do we know whom to hire?
  • How do we make decisions?
  • How do we resolve conflict?
  • When do I need to be online?
  • How quickly do I need to respond to email?
  • What kinds of work necessitate a meeting?

Care

The final piece of resourcing the team, and perhaps the most critical, care. The care piece captures the very human elements of supporting the people who are coming together for this crazy ride called company building.

What does success look like?

Now that we have taken a look at the core accountabilities of the CEO role, we might explore for a moment what success looks like.

How then to succeed?

With a clearer view of what the CEO’s job actually is, we can do a better job of setting ourselves up for success.

  • Rest
  • Community
  • Self-care
  • Meditation
  • Proper nutrition

Closing thoughts

A few tools I have written about that may be helpful to you as you come to greater understanding of what the CEO role really is:

  1. Morning practices for the modern CEO. Your mornings are a tremendous ally. They are a great time to put your own oxygen mask on first and set yourself up for the day. Here are a few of my favorite tools for mornings.
  2. Here is a primer on goal setting for high-performance teams.
  3. A crowd-favorite, here is my argument for why CEOs ought to work 40-hour weeks and not more. Something fun to consider.

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Matt Munson

CEO coach @ sanitylabs.co. Angel investor. Startup founder. Committed to helping leaders feel less alone in the journey.