The Biggest Difference Between a Corporate CEO and a Startup CEO

Startup CEO's Need To Be In The Elevator All The Time

I’ve been around a number Corporate CEO’s both in my corporate and consulting lives. What these CEO’s have in common is the capacity to craft and articulate the view from 50,000 feet. That is, to craft and articulate the big, hairy vision that the company seeks to accomplish, and the major strategies to enable this vision to happen.

This huge responsibility ALSO falls on the shoulders of the Startup CEO.

The big difference is what happens after. The Corporate CEO will then DELEGATE. She will assemble her MANCOM, communicate the 50,000 foot vision, and ask them to carry out her orders. Seldom does she get her hands dirty, and with very good reason – she has to take care of the Big Picture.

The Startup CEO, meanwhile, will do most of the heavy lifting AS WELL.  The more nascent the startup is, the larger the heavy lifting of the Startup CEO will be. The Startup CEO NEEDS to be on the ground simply because there is simply little or no organization to carry things out at the detail or standard she wants.

This distinction makes huge difference.

Whereas the Corporate CEO would tell her Sales Director “let’s call all the major accounts and push this new product of ours,” (and the Sales Director would probably bring down that directive two more levels down), the Startup CEO would  begin doing the calls herself. This is literally something I know a number of startup CEO’s have done.

This ability – the skill of deftly shifting between 50,000 feet AND 50 feet on the ground, is a crucial, crucial skill. While the Corporate CEO has to deal with much larger scope and  sophistication, the Startup CEO has to deal with the difficulty of rapidly and humbly changing hats very very often.

It is very easy to lose track of the former while working on the latter, and vice versa. For example, if you are busy in the trenches selling your product with customers, it’s very easy to get consumed by the detail and by numbers and forget about the overarching strategy. This is dangerous of course, as the startup relies heavily on the CEO to provide big-picture thinking – and ensuring the fledgling firm doesn’t fall from the path.

At the same time, let’s say you’ve just done your super strategic business model/vision for a product, and you’re feeling mighty proud of the product of your mental weightlifting, it takes quite an effort to motivate yourself to dive in and start doing the dirty work yourself, such as driving around to deliver items yourself, or picking up the phone to call 30 people in the next 2 hours, or washing the plates after you eat. Of course, without the groundwork, nothing would happen.

This is what makes the job of a Startup CEO quite challenging – she needs to be ready to ride a high-speed elevator at any given time. This is also why I think it’s such a tremendous, tremendous learning process. Got an idea? Go do it. That’s end-to-end learning.

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