VC Cliche of the Week

This week I am going with a cliche that is  not specific to the venture business, but I’ve modified it slightly to reflect the way I use it to talk about founders and CEOs.

I often look at a founder or a CEO, see the tired eyes, an anxious twitch in the cheek, or a missing beat in their step and think to myself or say outloud to others – "he’s got the weight of the company on his shoulders".

Being the founder and/or CEO is heavy duty. To use another cliche, "it’s lonely at the top".

There are some leaders who seem to bear the burden with ease. Our president would be in that camp, but recently even he seems to be showing the strains.

But most people, regardless of how well prepared they are for the role, will find being the leader to be a thankless role at times. 

Everyone inside the company is looking to you for answers, for leadership, for direction, and on top of that, they want it with a smile and a pat on the back.

Try doing all that on a day when you find out that the numbers were awful the past month, that your CTO is leaving to do another startup, and your lead investor is giving you a hard time. 

Frankly, its a thankless task most of the time.  Because who do they report to?  A board, not a person.  And a board is a lot less likely to provide day to day management and support.  Groups don’t do that, people do.  And unfortunately, a board is a group not a person.

Now I try hard to provide some of that day to day management and support to the people who run the companies we invest in.  But "try" is the operative word.  I don’t do as good of a job as I’d like for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that we sit on a bunch of boards (we try to keep it to no more than six) so we’ve got a lot of "mouth’s to feed", the fact that we have an agenda (to make money) that isn’t always directly consistent with the CEO’s agenda (to keep the company moving forward and keep his job), and the fact that I’ve never had a CEO job so I really don’t know what it’s like to do that job day in and day out.  I suspect I’m pretty good at providing management and support given all those limitations.

But my advice to founders and CEOs who find that they have the weight of the company on their shoulders is to get some help.

And there are two sources of help I recommend.

The first is inside the company.  A CEO/founder must surround themselves with people who they like, trust, and can lower their guard with.  The best leaders have a "kitchen cabinet" of people they can be completely honest with and who they rely on for advice, counsel, and support. It is tricky to provide that back to the same people who are providing it to you, but you must try to make it happen.

The second is outside the company.  I encourage every CEO/founder I work with to find someone that they can meet with at least once a week to talk to about their hopes, dreams, challenges, anxieties, and fears.  I don’t normally suggest a shrink, but a coach or a mentor who has no other agenda than to be your counsel and friend is critical.  Most of the successful leaders I know has someone like this, at least for part of their stint on the job.

The bottom line is being a founder/CEO is a really hard job.  It’s even harder if you’ve never done it before. If you find yourself being slowed down by the weight of the company on your shoulders, find some people you can trust and be totally honest with to help you carry the load.