Tech CEOs like Elon Musk have been deemed visionaries by the tech world for “disrupting” transportation, but a visionary is very different than an effective CEO. It takes more than launching rockets into orbit or creating electric cars to truly be an effective CEO. It takes leadership across every part of the organization.
There’s been a laser focus on founders’ and CEOs’ ability to constantly push the envelope and innovate. This can result in “visionary” CEOs just focusing on the product and not the other critical components of the job–actually leading the company, its team, and instilling trust and confidence by the Board of Directors, shareholders, and customers. CEOs whose hearts only lie within leading product innovation may not find the other parts of being CEO as sexy, but a company will die without these six critical CEO leadership skills.
1. Hire People Who Are Better Than You
A good CEO knows their own strengths and weaknesses when leading a company, and they will recruit others to fill in the skill gaps that they don’t have. You might be thinking that CEOs already do this, but many don’t. Many CEOs struggle to relinquish power and think that hiring people who are better than them at certain things is a sign of weakness. But really, the best thing that a CEO can do for their company is to hire people who are even better than they are in an effort to foster more innovation, inspire trust and satisfaction in consumers, and be profitable. You can find a great example of this type of leadership in Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist. Newmark has not been involved in craigslist’s day-to-day operations since 2000, but as he describes it, “I was briefly CEO until informed that as a manager, I kinda suck.” He then turned craigslist’s day-to-day operations over to people with different skill sets, who performed better in management roles, to grow and sustain the company. Newmark learned that his sweet spot was customer service and philanthropy, and that’s where he continues to thrive.
Katerina Lake, Founder and CEO of Stitch Fix, says that in the last few years her job evolved to be a lot more about the people inside the company and “just making sure that we have the best leaders...helping us to fulfill our potential.”
2. Keep Your Ego In Check
Being a CEO obviously gives you a lot of power, but power can go to your head and cloud your judgement if it's not checked. Some CEOs get a taste of power leading them to feel as if they are invincible and can do no wrong. This will always, inevitably, get a company into trouble and severely impact your company’s brand and consumer trust. For example, CEOs with overblown egos always think they are right and dig their heels in about it. They don’t encourage healthy debate, which, in turn, stifles product innovation and disempowers their team, impacting delivery, sales, and profits. #NotGood
Surround yourself with people who feel comfortable speaking up and, when needed, will help you check your ego. There is a difference between confidence, which is an important quality for a CEO to possess, and egomania. I made this part of our culture from day one at Rad Campaign, the company I cofounded and run.
Ursula Burns, Chairwoman of VEON and former CEO of Xerox, has spoken about the importance of people being real with each other at work, explaining that “it's up to a company's leadership to encourage honesty among its employees, where they are unafraid of repercussions for voicing an opinion they assume is unpopular.”
"You want to be kind. And that's a good thing, but kind doesn't always mean that you're smiling and happy. Kind means that you're real with each other and that you can have a set of constructive, I call them fast-paced, discussions.And so you've got to build up relationships to allow that to happen without having a whole lot of scar tissue at the end," said Burns.
3. Have Compassion And Passion
Being passionate about your company and inspiring that passion in others is important. But some founders and CEOs think you need to be ruthless and have little compassion for people to succeed. This is a recipe for disaster. You can have all the passion in the world, but if you have no compassion for your team, if you discount your board, your shareholders, and your customers (yes—even the critics), you will struggle with retention rates, and you will cultivate a contentious environment with your board, shareholders, and customers. This will cost the company money, resources, and talent. It can be very lonely at the top, and CEOs need loyal people by their side. You can’t lead alone.
Lake says that her role as CEO goes far beyond boosting the bottom line: "I think it really forces you to think more about what is the culture that I'm creating, what is the impact that I'm having."
4. Learn To Take Criticism
CEOs are not perfect and companies screw up more than they would like to. Listening to criticism and not lashing out (i.e. Musk calling a rescue diver a pedophile on Twitter or calling the press liars over an investigative report) is one of the most important skills that all CEOs should have on day one of the job. Sure, not all criticism is valid. However, if you look deep enough, more often than not, there are things that you can learn from your critics and if you address those things head on, it can make your company stronger. Going back to my earlier point: don’t let your ego get in the way.
5. Don’t Obsess Over What Everyone Else Does
I’ve seen some CEOs constantly obsess over their competition and do everything they can to outdo them. This can lead you to make harmful decisions and lose sight of your company’s vision and values. For example, last week the CEO of a company behind a major tech conference tried to outdo competitors in their speaker lineup and programming by inviting a neonazi to speak at their summit in Lisbon. The tech community revolted on social media and many attendees who had purchased tickets threatened to cancel them. This wasn’t just a bad judgement call by the CEO, it’s an illustration of how obsessing over standing out from your competitors can lead to catastrophic decisions that insult your community and can ruin your brand. To further ignite the fire, the CEO wrote a Medium post defending the decision because he felt attendees needed to have their opinions deeply challenged. Apparently a neonazi was the one to challenge the tech community in Lisbon, a country that still remembers living under a repressive dictatorship.
Eventually the CEO listened to their community and the negative press, and the conference revoked the speaker invite.
Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, has spoken publicly about how he intentionally doesn’t follow the competition closely or read a lot of industry news because it’s too easy to get distracted and lose your focus. “Don’t get other people’s work too deep in your head or you’ll be doing their work, not yours.”
6. Treat Everyone With Respect
Treating everyone with respect is a no brainer, but some CEOs are total jerks and treat people like disposable garbage. Don’t be that CEO.
At the end of the day, not every founder should be a CEO. If you suck as a managing CEO and you can’t put in the work to learn these critical leadership skills, or it’s just not who you are, the best thing you can do for your company is to hire someone who can. Instead, focus on the strengths that you do bring to the company to help it scale.
*Disclosure: Craig Newmark is on the Advisory Board of Women Who Tech, a nonprofit I founded to showcase and fund women-led tech startups.