Balancing The Many Hats Of A Startup CEO

Illustration by Amelia Austin (c)

Startup CEOs wear many hats that they take on and off as company priorities ebb and flow. One moment they are the CFO and raising capital and the next they are the Head of Product and making critical roadmap decisions. As a quarter-end nears, they become heads of Sales and as the company expands (or contracts) they’re running HR. There can be tremendous stress when a CEO tries to wear too many hats at once or struggles to decide which to wear, which to remove, and which to hand off to someone on their team – if such a team exists! The startup CEOs I coach have used following framework I’ve created to help them determine which hats to where when. While this article is largely focused on startup CEOs, framework can also be an effective tool for other organizational leaders.

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The Hats

The most common array of hats that a CEO may wear at any given time fall into the categories below, but no CEO – early stage or not – can split their time and attention so perfectly as the chart denotes.

Before deciding which hats to wear and when, a startup CEO should first identify with what their hats (categories) are in their current role. Using the visual above, here’s how I define these very common categories:

Product (What & When): This is what the company produces. It includes customer discovery, design, building, shipping and support. It also includes prioritization and tradeoff decision making for features, new products and services. Many startup CEOs are product people and this can often be one of the hardest hats to take off completely – if ever. Note that being a product visionary and/or a great coder or designer does not necessarily mean one is a great Product Manager – knowing how to make tradeoffs, analyze customer requirements or develop a product roadmap. Be sure to fully explore this “hat” before deciding it’s one to wear or take off.

Culture & Process (How): I was inspired recently by a coaching client of mine who combined these two into one category. If the culture doesn’t work, then the processes won’t work either. Creating high performing teams goes well beyond what workflows, policies and procedures are in place. It is how the team communicates, operates and evolves as a living organism. Never underestimate the value of focusing on culture with process starting from day one! Some CEOs are natural culture builders and system thinkers, but if this is not a strong suit, it’s definitely a hat that should be worn by an in-house culture expert or by someone with natural team-building/program management skills.

Strategy (Where, Why & When): Determining the company’s True North, setting direction for at least the next 12-18 months and making critical decisions about the company’s mission for things like fundraising, revenue growth and human capital. This is also about defining and communicating why the company is doing what it does which is as important as where it is going. Employees and investors/board members all perform better when there is clarity on why the company is moving in a particular direction. This hat is quite commonly on the CEO’s head forever.

Talent & Development (Who & How): A company will not succeed or grow without hyper focus on the growth of their employees. It is vital to the success and stability of an organization to establish best in class hiring practices and programs as well as to develop each person’s skills as individuals and leaders. As companies grow, CEOs must be thoughtful about where to focus hiring efforts, how to provide incentives to retain top performers and how to grow those with high potential. In addition, as companies grow, there will always be tradeoffs on when to promote from within, when to hire more experienced talent and when it’s time for some team members to move on. CEOs often wear this hat more often than others, but many have COOs or strong HR leaders on their teams who wear this hat permanently.

Back Office (How): A company can have the best product and team in the world and mess things up royally because the back office hat was on the wrong individual’s head. This is mostly finance (accounting, receivables, payroll, etc.) and legal (employee contracts, partnerships, etc.). I’m amazed at how many CEOs wear this hat for too long. It’s ok early stage, but let the professionals do this work once the company hits product market fit and is beginning to operate at scale. Some CEOs are former CFOs who are perfectly capable of leading back office teams, but data shows that CFOs often lack “Outside-in” thinking (a strong mega-trend and customer focus)” and lack the creative and inspirational leadership qualities of a great CEO.

Marketing, Sales & Business Development (What, Why & When): Brand identity, target audiences, community development, filling the pipeline, closing deals and creating strategic partnerships. These tasks often require CEO leadership – especially early stage. Some CEOs are very marketing/sales oriented which can derive huge benefits for the business as long as there are capable leaders on the team wearing other hats. However, many CEOs are not marketers and, like the Back Office hat, should leave that work to the experts.

The Have-to-dos, Want-to-dos & Good-ats

Rather than being stressed out trying to balance all hats at once, it is best to focus on wearing 1-2 hats at a time. These 1-2 hats are those that HAVE to be done. It’s great when these prioritized hats also happen to be hats a leader wants to wear and require skills that they believe they are good at, but that is not always the case – especially for early stage CEOs who often need to do a lot of things that they may be good at, but don’t necessarily want to do. Similarly, there can be things a CEO is good at and wants to do, but the business doesn’t require them to do it. Finally, there are times when something has to be done, the CEO wants to do it, but they lack the skill to do it well (self-professed or not!). Here are a few examples:

  • Finances – CEOs are good at doing the accounting for the business and it has to be done, but usually very willing to give that up as soon as they can hire a head of finance. They don’t want to do it!
  • Product/Technology – No matter how much a founder/CEO wants to design or code – and they may be good at it – there is a point as a company scales that CEOs have to take off this hat. They are no longer “have to-dos” at their level. Note, I have seen a number of CEO-Founders take their CEO hats off to dive back into the product – they not only want to do it, it’s their passion!
  • Hiring – Inexperienced CEOs managing people and leading teams for the first time both have to hire and want to hire, but are often unskilled when it comes to sourcing, interviewing and managing the onboarding experience. This is a skill they are not good at.

If a company is well funded and/or profitable, the CEO can usually move swiftly to swap or delegate hats with the support of their leadership team or investors. They may hire more seasoned leaders or team members and/or offer training for those who need to develop their skills. However, for the fledgling teams who can’t fund these improvements, it is even more important to make hard choices about which hats to wear…even if that means letting some things slide or not executing perfectly. The tradeoffs can be hard, but the focus of this exercise can allow a leader to move quickly from one to the next so things don’t slide for too long. In fact, it is extremely common for CEOs to become so paralyzed about which hats to wear that the performance of the company is suffering more than if they had just picked 1-2 hats to focus on and move forward.

To get started on assessing “have to-dos (HTDs), want to-dos (WTDs) and good-ats (GAs)”, I recommend a two-pronged approach:

  1. Using the categories or hats identified, rate the HTDs, WTDs and GAs today and what the HTDs should be in the future. This exercise requires self reflection and a large dose of humility.
  2. Define what measurable goals must be achieved to remove a particular hat OR issues that need to be resolved to put on a particular hat. Include an action plan (with timeline) that ensures goals can be met. 

Using a framework like the chart below, begin to outline and rate the categories, 1-5. 1=low (this is a hat not being worn, not wanting to do, or something one is not good at ) and 5=high (absolutely something that has to be done, there’s strong passion to do it, self-assesses* that it is a strong skill).

*Self assessed skills are different than how others perceive one’s abilities. If unsure, do a 360-feedback survey with your team or seek outside help!

An optional third step is to color code each row to visually identify hats that are critical to wear (red), not urgent but important (yellow) and the hats that are satisfactory at this time (green).

I’ve created two charts below – before and after – as examples of how a CEO of a post series A startup with modest revenue might perform this exercise:

BEFORE

In the above example, the rows in green show where the CEO is satisfied with their current involvement (“hat wearing”). The rows in yellow are places where they need to adjust their involvement, but not urgent. The two red rows are urgent and where the CEO wants to put their focus. 

  • In the case of Culture & Process, the CEO only rates their hat wearing as a “2” and there are serious issues in the organization to address. The CEO has identified what is going on in the “HTD Achieved/Needed When…” column which requires them to put on the hat and what actions they will take to ensure they are wearing that hat at least at a “4” (HTD Future). 
  • In the second case, the CEO knows the Back Office work is important, but does not want to do back office work, nor do they feel they are good at it. Thus, they are working to remove the Back Office hat and reducing their involvement from a 4 to a 1. In this case, the bullets in the “HTD Achieved/Needed When…” column clarify what will be happening when the CEO has officially taken off that hat, moving it to a “1” (HTD Future).

Identifying what hats need wearing – and how firmly to wear/remove said hats – is step one. Taking actions to add or remove the hat(s) is step two. In the case of ramping up on Culture & Process noted above, the CEO would kick off the action items and set a timeframe of when they would be able to remove that hat. They would then update the chart to be clear what will need to be in place for them to remove/loosen that hat. Similar with Back Office work, once the key actions are achieved, the chart is updated to reflect that the Back Office hat no longer needs wearing. The updated chart may look like this:

AFTER

With the updates above, the CEO has removed their Back Office hat and is firmly wearing the Culture & Process hat. They can now continue to focus on the Culture & Process hat until it can be taken off (“1”). They can also decide which of the two yellow rows – Product and Talent & Development – they want to focus on next while the other areas of the business require less of their attention. 

Most CEOs who follow this process use months or quarters to time-box focused efforts and update the charts, but it all depends on how one works and how fast change is happening inside the organization. Choose what works best for you!

No Recipe Is Perfect

The exercise above is one way of thinking about how to balance many hats a CEO – or any leader of a large team – might wear. There’s no perfect algorithm and while one might aim to only wear a maximum of two hats at a time, there will be times when many hats will have to be worn. I’ve also seen CEOs who find that once they’ve mastered a new skill, the hat they didn’t want to wear is actually one that they enjoyed wearing more than they expected.

There are of course sometimes when CEOs realize that no matter how much training, coaching or mentoring they get, they are not able to wear any of the hats well or they just don’t enjoy wearing them. This is often when the company is achieving a level of scale that requires more experience than the CEO’s own professional experience. Some CEOs recognize this and work with their boards to find a successor, but sometimes this can be a decision taken out of a CEO’s hands when their board/investors decide the business can’t wait for the CEO to grow into the role. I’ve also seen many CEOs who find a great partner (President or COO) to run the business with them and augment some of the skills they have yet to or want to master. This not only keeps the company on the rails, but gives the CEO a role model to learn from along the way.

Conclusion

CEOs should be performing a regular assessment of where their time is focused, identify measurable results when changes are made and what actions to take to get there. Even a simple visual like the Before and After on the balance wheels below can kick start the process. Identifying what the current focus areas are (before) and where should they be (after).

No matter how a leader decides to assess and prioritize their hats, leaning into the balancing process will likely mitigate stress and potential burnout. What processes have you seen that are effective towards balancing hat wearing? Please share in the comments! Meanwhile, if you are thinking about trying this exercise, I have created a google sheet template for anyone to use to start this process. Feel free to save a copy of the template for yourself and dig in!

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NOTE: The balancing hat illustration at the top of this article was created by my daughter, Amelia Austin and is copy-written.

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