7 Key Roles of a Successful Startup CEO

…successful startup CEOs are just like successful people in all lines of life; they just get more publicity. - John M. Paris, Jr., Williams Mullen

...all of these responsibilities boil down to one common role—being a moneymaker - Jordan Walbesser, Hodgson Russ LLP

In your experience, what’s the most important role that a startup CEO should fulfill?

That’s the question we put recently to JD Supra contributors, many of whom have spent years working with successful entrepreneurs in various capacities and have a worthwhile perspective on this question. For a new post in our series covering all aspects of startup life, we wanted to understand: what makes a successful startup CEO successful? Here’s what we heard back.

1. A Servant Leader

A leader who serves his customers and his team will be the leader whose company succeeds

From Marty Lorenzo, a member of law firm Mintz Levin’s Venture Capital & Emerging Companies practice: “The most important role that a startup CEO can fulfill is that of a servant leader. A leader who serves his customers and his team will be the leader whose company succeeds. Leaders who care about the success of their constituents (customers, team members, and investors) and about helping others succeed are the leaders who engender trust. Startup CEOs who are servant leaders accept the mantle of leadership because they know that they can help make a difference in the world with a team that provides a better product or service. Their belief in this vision translates to a team vision that incorporates success for every individual. Servant leaders have a clear understanding of what success looks like not only for their company, but for each member of their team.”

2. A Communicator-in-Chief

Communications with members of the business team, investors, strategic partners, and vendors need to be uniformly clear and unequivocal

From James Coffey at McCarter & English: “The startup CEO faces multiple challenges and, by default, wears many hats. First and foremost among these is that of ‘Communicator-in-Chief.’ At the startup phase of a business, communications with members of the business team, investors, strategic partners, and vendors need to be uniformly clear and unequivocal. Mistakes in the delivery of critical information early-on can crush a company. These communications can be non-verbal too. The startup CEO,  by her actions and demeanor, sets the tone for an organization and helps establish its culture and develop its brand. With clear and effective communication skills from the onset , the startup CEO paves the way for success.”

3. A Strategic Leader

The CEO sets direction by defining the vision, building the business case and plan, and aligning, motivating, and inspiring key stakeholders

From Paul Feiler, director at Berkeley Research Group: “The most important role a startup CEO fulfills is that of strategic leader. As strategist, the CEO directs individuals and teams to manage three clusters of activity. First, the CEO sets direction by defining the vision, building the business case and plan, and aligning, motivating, and inspiring key stakeholders. Second, the CEO and her/his delegates develop the organizational capability required to meet customer requirements (e.g., adequate financing, the right people in the right seats, agile and effective processes, quality products). Third, the CEO executes the plan that guides a capable organization as it captures opportunities and mitigates strategic risks, while monitoring progress and making timely course corrections.”

4. A Visionary

As to be expected, our contributors returned to the notion of Vision several times and in different ways:

The CEO's critical role is to provide a dual external and internal vision for the company

From Joshua A. Ehrenfeld, attorney at Burr & Forman: “Keeping one foot grounded is the essential characteristic for a successful start-up CEO. The CEO's critical role is to provide a dual external and internal vision for the company.  Externally, the CEO must exude knowledge and confidence in the business, while setting forth a plan for the company's growth throughout the start-up phase and towards expansion of the business. Internally, the CEO must maintain and oversee realistic operational structures, goals and expectations for the company's employees, partners and investors. This balancing act requires a CEO to internalize, appreciate and respect the possibility of failure, while concurrently preserving and channeling the inherent momentum and energy of the business that is the lifeblood of any start-up.

The CEO must paint the vision of what the startup will do

From Todd Antonelli, director at Berkeley Research Group: “The most important role that a startup CEO should fulfill is to leverage the power of inspirational vision and leadership into their new company. The CEO must paint the vision of what the startup will do. If Henry Ford simply listened to customers, he would have focused on breeding faster horses rather than attempting to compete with the more expensive German manufacturers. He set and held to an inspiring vision to create an affordable automobile for the masses. He created fans by painting a vision of what the automobile could do. People want to feel something, to be moved and inspired. Modern-day successful founder/startup CEOs like Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg outlined inspirational visions that cultivate cultures and link drivers of innovation, inspire their teams to new heights, unlock the collaborative power and opportunities that their teams can create, and create clarity in focusing on winning strategies that support the vision."

They can give a great speech but understand they lead best by action

From John M. Paris, Jr, chair of the Williams Mullen Private Equity Group: “Successful startup CEOs come in all shapes and sizes but the best possess almost identical traits. The most important is that they are passionate about their vision. They are terrified by failure but believe in themselves and their team. They have a plan but know it’s always just a draft. They know their strengths but welcome help even in areas they think they’ve mastered. They know their limitations so they hire smarter people who can fill the holes. They believe in the wonder of their product or service but know no one succeeds without customers who demand it. They can write a dissertation about their plan but explain it in a paragraph. They appreciate complexity but work tirelessly to overcome it. They can give a great speech but understand they lead best by action. They know the success of the company is more important than their percentage of the equity letting the former take care of the value of the latter. They ask for help but trust their own counsel.  In short, successful startup CEOs are just like successful people in all lines of life; they just get more publicity.”

The best start-up CEOs surround themselves with A players

From Dave Cappillo, Technology Companies partner at Goodwin Procter, and Founders Workbench contributor: “I think there are two absolutely critical roles. One is that an effective startup CEO must be able to clearly and passionately lay out the vision for the start-up and its product - why the company exists and why the marketplace needs its product. Equally as important is that a start-up CEO must be relentless and successful in attracting and motivating key hires that will move the needle across all key functional areas – like product development and technology, sales and marketing. The best start-up CEOs surround themselves with A players.”

5. A Good Listener

The successful startup CEO is a good listener and can take advice from trusted experienced advisors

From Steven Cohen, partner and co-manager, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP’s Emerging Business and Technology practice: “Perspective within the chaos is the key difference between a successful startup CEO and an unsuccessful one. Naturally, a strong startup CEO needs to know their business well, be a hard working hands-on achiever and have basic interpersonal qualities of success such as strong leadership skills, self-motivation and integrity. However, unlike in a big company where there are a lot of subject matter experts, a startup has to get by with the resources they have. A successful Startup CEO effectively and cost-efficiently leverages outside resources, such as accounting and legal advisors for both knowledge and relationships, and realizes which legal areas and documents and other functions have to be prioritized and be performed with excellence and which simply good enough to move forward. The successful startup CEO is a good listener and can take advice from trusted experienced advisors, which creates that perspective to do what at times seems impossible until all of a sudden it is possible.”

6. The Top Salesperson, the Chief Marketer, the Chief Fundraiser

Until the company is large enough and well-funded, most of these important tasks fall on the CEO’s shoulders

From Jeremy Glaser, co-chair of Mintz Levin’s Venture Capital & Emerging Companies practice:  “A startup CEO has to wear many hats to be successful. Usually the CEO of a startup is the founder and came up with the new product and the market need. But being a creative innovator is not enough. The successful CEO needs to be the top salesperson for the company and its products. He needs to be the head of HR and hire the best people with the best fit for the company’s product and culture. She needs to be the chief marketing officer adept at raising market awareness for the company and its products. And he needs to be chief fundraiser perfecting the pitch to angels and venture capitalists so that they too can share his vision about how the company will serve an important market need, grow and make everyone fabulously wealthy. Being excellent at all of these varied tasks is rare but in my experience necessary to be successful at the start-up phase. As a company matures, it will be able to hire, great engineers and product designers, a head of sales , an HR expert, a chief marketing officer and a chief financial officer who can help or takeover most of these tasks.  But until the company is large enough and well-funded, most of these important tasks fall on the CEO’s shoulders."

…related, and last but by no means least:

7. The Moneymaker

All of these responsibilities boil down to one common role—being a moneymaker

From Jordan Walbesser, an attorney at Hodgson Russ LLP: “Everyone expects a startup CEO to juggle multiple responsibilities. After all, everything seems critical at the early stage of a company. But, all of these responsibilities boil down to one common role—being a moneymaker. As a moneymaker, the CEO inspires confidence amongst the team. That means the CEO needs to be responsible for everything that happens (or doesn’t happen) at the startup. By doing this, the moneymaker CEO sets the proper tone for everything—big and small. Practically speaking, the moneymaker CEO has three core responsibilities:

  • Set an overall strategy for the company and communicate it effectively.
  • Hire and retain the best talent.
  • Ensure that the company bank account is in the black

Everything else should be delegated to the team. It’s true that some talented CEOs can do more. And that’s fine. But, a CEO that fails at one of those core responsibilities will not be a successful moneymaker. A CEO that fills the moneymaker role can make an otherwise average startup great.”


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