Mar 15, 2007

Startup CEO's Role - Part 1

There are a lot of things that the Founder CEO should be doing, and a lot of things s/he gets involved in, from pricing discussions to the brand of coffee to be bought. At the entrepreneurship conference I'd mentioned in a previous post, one speaker was very emphatic on what startup CEO should be doing: getting the team committed to the vision, holding people accountable, and communicating constantly. The more I think about it, the more it seems that they all boil down to just one thing: communicating.

Every once in a while I feel that the whole communication thing is being overdone and let's get on with the execution already. And then something happens which brings home the point that the communication didn't happen as it should and created a glitch in, what else, execution. A case in point: we'd started work on a 'proof of concept' and our small team got together and defined what we wanted to the engineer. At that time, there was some talk about what platform the POC should be built on and I'd responded I didn't care what the platform choice was as it would be a throw-away - we'll figure it out before we started the product development, while the POC would be used for presentation, validation, discussion etc., for a few months. The engineer who was developing the POC got all that, but unfortunately construed the 'throw-away' part to imply that once it was done it would be static, i.e., the POC itself may not enhanced or modified. That's about as likely in a startup as having a business plan cast in stone. Luckily, he was able to mitigate the effects of the choices he'd made based on this misunderstanding, but it was not without some cost.

In this case it was not a lack of communication that caused the disconnect, but forgetting that slangy phrases that are open to interpretation should not be used in specifications (even if it's only in a casual conversation), and that not everyone has the same grasp of the big picture as you do and may interepret statements differently (most engineers should not be expected to think like the CEO, regardless of how many 'vision' and 'strategy' sessions you may have). It's much better to spell it out than throw it out.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. When I think of all the other nuances of communications in a startup: dealing with different styles, personalities, levels of expertise, virtual teams, and that's not even considering the external constituents such as investors, I think it's time to redefine the role. It should be Chief Communications Officer, because there's no execution without effective communication. (And no, lots of meetings do not make for good communications, and meetings are a whole different topic.) Startup CCO: it's a good way to remember what you're supposed to be doing.

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