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Three keys to being a great CEO

I had a chat with a CEO I work with who has had a challenging year scaling up his company. He – and the company – have made a lot of progress after hitting a low point this spring. After the call, he sent me the following note he has pasted on his desk.

1. Lead by example by holding myself and all accountable, no matter how hard.

2. Set the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicate it to all stakeholders.

3. Recruit, hire, and retain the very best talent and inspire them.

4. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.

5. Be the advocate for the customer over the company’s short-term needs.

6. Drive the execution and evolve the operating system.

7. Champion the company and our mission to the world.

You might recognize #2, 3, and 4 from Fred Wilson’s magnificent post What A CEO Does. I give a talk for many of the Techstars CEOs called “How to be a Great CEO” and I focus the conversation around Fred’s points. And when I think about how a CEO is doing, I always start with 2, 3 and 4.

I’ve come to believe that you can’t be a great CEO if you don’t do these three things. But great CEOs do many more than just these three things. So I view them as “price of admission” – if you can’t/aren’t doing these three things, you won’t be a great CEO.

I always encourage the CEOs I talk with to create a clear framework for what they are doing. What you are doing, and spending time on, will change over time based on the stage of your company. When you are 10 people, you’ll have a different set of priorities than when you are 100 or 1,000 people. But having a clear framework for what you, and how you do it, is powerful.

I love what this CEO has done to make Fred’s framework his own. Notice that each sentence starts out with the imperative form of an action – basically a statement of action. Lead, set, recruit, make, be, drive, champion. Great words.

If you break it down, it also defines a value set for the CEO and for the company.

Finally, you are going to hear a lot more from me about the Company Operation System (what you see in #6). That’s the essence of what Matt Blumberg has figured out in scaling up Return Path, and uses to define his approach to scaling a business in Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business.

My experience with all of this is that it’s incredibly hard, breaks regularly at different points in the life of a company, and requires a great CEO to continually grow and learn from mistakes, adjust course based on new information, and work diligently at being honest with himself, his team, and his board about what is going on. But if you get it right, it’s magical.

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Brad Feld

Brad has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur for more than 20 years. Prior to co-founding the Boulder-based Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and Intensity Ventures, a company that helped launch and operate software companies. Brad is a nationally recognized speaker on the topics of venture capital investing and entrepreneurship and writes widely read and well respected blogs at www.feld.com and www.askthevc.com. He holds bachelor's and master's of science degrees from from MIT. Contact him at brad@feld.com

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