Start-Up CEOs Don’t Need More Time — They Need More Focus

“The question I ask myself almost every day is, ‘Am I doing the most important thing I could be doing?’”

— Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook

All early stage CEOs lament not having enough time each day to get everything done. So, they invest countless cycles looking into tactical productivity hacks and time-saving shortcuts, many of which are effective at helping them save a few minutes here and there.

But as a company grows past having 20 or more people, the CEO’s real challenge becomes focus — strategically deciding what to do, not just how to do everything more efficiently. And while this process is extremely nerve-wracking and counter-intuitive for the “Chief Everything Officer,” it is a growth process that every CEO of a fast-growth company must embrace.

The simple truth is that at some point, there’s just too much to do, and CEO must begin moving certain tasks off her plate. This normally happens around the time she goes from building a product to building a company — that point where you’ve achieved product-market-fit and you are beginning to scale operations in the hunt of profitability.

Shifting into Focus Management Mode requires a very different set of skills than Time Management Mode. Below, we share the very best insights shared with us over the years by some of the most effective CEOs on the planet.

I) Be Crystal Clear on Your Job Description — If you ask an early stage CEO what his/her job description is, they will most likely laugh and say, “Do everything it takes to make the company succeed.” This attitude is crucial to success in the early days of a company, but it can stifle a company’s growth at later stages.

CEOs of companies that have achieved product market fit and are moving into growth mode have a very specific set of responsibilities, and “do everything” is not one of them. Mid-stage CEOs should focus on:

  1. Growth, Burn Rate & Runway — There’s nothing else to do if you run out of money, so driving growth, managing burn-rate and monitoring your runway is of primary importance for the fast growth CEO. Have a CFO and head of sales you can trust, but know that the ultimate responsibility rests on your shoulders.

  2. Talent Acquisition & Management — CEOs manage teams, not products, so it is your job to make sure you are working with the best team you can afford. This means being the final interview in strategic hires as long as you can, while also hiring a head of HR whom you trust sooner than you think you should. Hiring great people should be a priority, but you shouldn’t think you have to do it alone.

  3. Purpose & Culture — In fast-moving start-ups, this crucial part of the CEO job descriptions is often overlooked at the company’s expense. CEOs are the spiritual leaders of young companies. They set the tone both morally and emotionally. If you want your people to enjoy their jobs, you have to enjoy yours. If you want your teams to work well together, you have to work well with yours. Demonstrations of toxic behavior in the C-Suite normalize that behavior for the rest of the company.

Of course other things come up from time to time that aren’t in one of those major buckets. Sometimes you need to put out fires. But if it seems like you’re putting out fires every single day, it’s most likely actually because you’re spending too much fighting the fires yourself, and not enough time hiring and empowering the right firemen.

II) Have Ambitious Goals — You set goals and measure metrics for your sales team, so why not for yourself? Using big goals to measure your own performance is a great way to get your priorities straight. Getting personally involved in a dispute with a customer will seem less important if it means missing your personal goals for the month.

As the CEO, your goals should be related to your job description:

  • Revenue growth

  • Optimizing burn rate

  • Executing fundraising

  • Managing the board

  • Acquiring top talent

  • Removing blocks for teams to hit their goals

  • Monitoring morale and culture

  • Communicating vision and purpose

All other metrics-based goals should be in someone else’s plan, and you should be holding them accountable.

III) Document Repeatable Processes — By the time you’ve reached 20+ people in the company, there are certain processes you’ve mastered. You’ve gotten so good at them you can do them in your sleep, and no one in the company can do them better. Good for you! But now it’s time to let them go.

This has been one of the secrets of success of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Uber has been able to expand operations to hundreds of markets around the world because Kalanick and his team experimented to find the best process and then documented it so no one person was needed to keep growing.

It might seem like a pain to step away from the urgency of the day-to-day to document processes you memorized long ago, but it is the only way to move less important tasks off your plate.

IV) Delegate Like it’s Your Job — Because it Is! — There’s actually another word for delegation that we like even better — Empowerment. When you delegate tasks to other employees you are empowering them to take on new challenges and responsibilities. Highly effective CEOs make delegation the default, and do it sometime within seconds of a possible task come across their plate.

If you have clarity about your job description, ambitious goals you’re pursuing, and clear processes you’ve documented, the first question you will ask yourself when something that doesn’t fit within that scope will be, “Who’s the best person to handle this?” and not, “When can I make time to deal with this?”

The caveat here is that delegation only works when you’ve hired an amazing team. To that end, you should be hiring problem solvers, not process doers. We will post more on hiring strategies in the next month.

V) Let go of “How” and Focus on “What” — You’re the CEO because you have a vision for a future state that others often can’t see by themselves. But that doesn’t mean you should micro-manage every step your team takes in getting to that future state.

In a high-growth start-up environment, effective CEOs have to trust that their team will operate with the same quality and care that they would themselves. Leaders must let go of how things get done and focus more squarely on knowing what should get done. You can do so with confidence if you’ve taken more time at the beginning to 1) hire the right people, and 2) do more documentation and training than you think necessary.

Exception: The only exception to this habit is that a leader should never let his or her team forget the company’s core values and integrity. An effective leader sets moral parameters for the “How,” and does not accept behavior that steps outside of that code.

Making the transition from time manager to focus manager can feel counter intuitive. Some executive clients of ours actually feel bad having free time once they have successfully delegating away all of the tasks that no longer fit within their job description. Yet, that “free time” is actually the reward for doing your job well, and it creates white-space in your calendar for unstructured time that often leads to insights and breakthroughs.

Edward Sullivan