Are You Dead-Set on Being Your Startup’s CEO? Your Ego Is Getting in the Way of Success

I’ve had the same title ever since I started my company more than 10 years ago: founder and managing director. I’ve been reluctant to change it, because I like that it’s understated. A friend of mine calls himself “chief cook and bottle washer” at the company he founded, and I’ve always appreciated the humor and humbleness of that.

However, now that Acceleration Partners has grown to almost 100 people across four countries, I’ve found that my title is causing some confusion. We now need managing directors to run different regions and areas of the business, and that’s not my role. So, I’ve finally changed my title to founder and CEO.

Before making this change, I took some time to reflect on what these roles and titles mean for a founder and an entrepreneurial business as it grows and evolves.

A lot of entrepreneurs load up on titles. I know many companies with fewer than 10 people where the founder holds the title of “founder, president and CEO.” Some even throw “chairman” into the mix.

The problem with this nomenclature is that it’s typically not aligned with what the founder is actually doing. CEO stands for “chief executive officer,” a title that implies that there are other executive officers for you to oversee. In most startups, the founder is serving in most, if not all, of the executive positions herself. These CEOs aren’t “chiefs”; they are one-man bands.

What’s more, it’s nonsensical for a small business leader to be both president and CEO. Those titles exist to delineate between different levels of responsibility when both roles are present and held by different people. Therefore, doubling up is nothing more than an ego stroke.

I spent some time reviewing CEO job descriptions, and I found the responsibilities boil down to:

  • Establishing  and maintaining corporate culture;
  • Setting company strategy;
  • Leading the executive team;
  • Interfacing with the board and/or investors;
  • Being the public face of the company–in the words of Peter Drucker, “The CEO is the link between the Inside, i.e. ‘the organization,’ and the Outside–society, the economy, technology, markets, customers, the media, public opinion”; and
  • Making final decisions on key issues based on the company’s needs, values and goals.

My decision to change my title ultimately came from realizing that, for the first time, these responsibilities accurately describe my job. I don’t manage our books anymore. I don’t manage our sales or operations. I have stepped out of the product.

My focus each day is on strategy, culture, leading and developing leaders, and being our key outside connection with customers, partners and advisors. I am the CEO.

This is just where my own path has taken me. Most founders actually don’t want to be CEO; their passion lies in the product or another area of the business such as sales or marketing. In these cases, they are better off taking the role they want and hiring smart people to do the rest. This is exactly what Tucker Max, founder of Book in a Box, did when he very publicly fired himself as CEO of his own company. Today, he’s in charge of the company’s product–and apparently much happier.

If you’ve given yourself the title of CEO but aren’t doing or don’t want these responsibilities as the business grows, you’re doing both yourself and your business a disservice. Pick the title and role in the business that reflects your passion and your skill set.

Find other people to do the work that you don’t want to do. That might be a No. 2 or a head of operations. It might be a CEO.

Whatever you do, give yourself a title that accurately reflects your role. Doing so will provide clarity both for the outside world and for your team about what you do and don’t do. Setting appropriate expectations is a major first step in meeting them.

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