Much is said about the skills and qualities required to be a CEO of a successful start up business but not much about what’s needed to work for one.
So here are my thoughts on what it takes to work for the CEO of a startup.
There’s no getting away from it – you have to work very hard if you want to get the respect of a startup CEO. Chances are they regularly work an 18 hour day and weekends are a dim memory which means they won’t look too kindly on someone who is not as committed to the success of their business as they are.
Checking emails on the go, keeping the engagement going in forums and social media and generally keeping the plates spinning means that ‘off’ time is rare. This means that you need to really love your job.
Deal with ambiguity
Successful start up CEO’s are dealing with a million and one things in their heads at any one time. By their nature they are creative people and adept at calculating risks. Otherwise they wouldn’t be successful.
They are on fast forward a lot as they try to maximise that emerging market opportunity – once the window’s closed the opportunity is gone and the potential sales lost.
So you don’t always get a crystal clear brief; it probably won’t be in writing and it may well change overnight. Active listening, asking sensible questions and thinking wider than the brief are prerequisites.
Spending time with your CEO travelling is a good way to chew the fat and get the background knowledge you need. Car, train or plane journeys where you are confined together offer great opportunities to get inside their heads. Always keep a notebook and pen handy (airline sick bags will do).
Get familiar and comfortable with the 80/20 rule but know when 100% quality is required. A start up CEO will be used to making lots of business decisions every day and will probably not tolerate someone who can’t make a decision, stick to it and implement against it.
Execution in a start up is essential – there’s no time to sit around dunking biscuits and mulling over things for days on end.
A start up business is a bit of a goldfish bowl – it can be a (painfully) transparent place to work. The company structure tends to be very flat which means you are very visible to your colleagues, peers and the CEO. If something you’ve done is a big success – great – you get all the glory though, of course, the opposite is true.
Start up CEO’s don’t like people who aren’t prepared to take responsibility for making things happen or for mistakes that have occured (which they will). Whilst the start up is their baby and they stand to gain and lose the most from it, they will appreciate someone else taking bits of the strain where appropriate.
If you’re committed and passionate about the success of the start up (and if you weren’t you shouldn’t be there) then the end of the rainbow where everyone benefits looks pretty, shiny and attractive.
A good successful start up CEO will know what to communicate to the team without shielding them from the reality or scaring them with something they can’t influence.
You need to trust that your CEO has the team’s best interests at heart and will make good on their promises of rewards. If you don’t you won’t be able to sustain your commitment and energy and you’ll soon become a prisoner.
Mary McKenna, one of the founding directors of Learning Pool, wrote this recent post giving 10 reasons to work in someone else’s start up. It also includes her list of 5 behaviours that really p** the start up CEO off. Uncompromising and worth a read.
Paul McElvaney, Learning Pool’s other founding director, wrote this post which talks more about the prisoner, passenger, player and protestor roles within teams.