(Image: My business card, circa 2014)
There are generally two roads to the CEO chair. The traditional path is a long, relatively straight line through a variety of operations, sales, mid-level management, and C-level roles. By the time one reaches the latter, there is often a "grooming" process to polish the future CEO's veneer. Then there is the moment. The moment for which they have been working their entire life. The rise to the CEO chair. The corner office. The perks. And the business card with the letters, "CEO" (or of course, "Chief Executive Officer").
The other road is that of the entrepreneur. It's somewhat the reverse of the traditional CEO route. In this case, you start with the title and the business cards, but that's about it. There is no corner office. No perks. If you're lucky, there is a chair and a six-foot folding table (currently on sale at Costco for $49 by the way). This version of CEOdome is like giving a team the Lombardi trophy (the name of that shiny football is fresh in my memory from last weeks Super Bowl) at the beginning of the season and telling them, "you can keep this if you win most of your games during the regular season, and every game in the playoffs, especially the last one, so don't mess it up otherwise we're taking it back and going to embarrass you in front of 98,000,000 people on national television".
It was late 2014. A box arrived at my door. It was from the printer. Inside were 1,000 business cards. Mine. Now I could stop writing my name and number on ripped pieces of envelopes and napkins every time I met a professional contact.
So I opened the box, picked one up and gave it the once over for spelling. Looked fine. Next to my name were the letters “CEO”. I thought about it for a moment. But not really. They were just letters. From what I could tell to date, the acronym pretty much stood for Chief Everything Officer. Truth is, I was far less than that at the time. From a business standpoint, I hadn't yet learned to run or walk or even crawl. I couldn't sing, utter prose, speak a word, or even a sound. I wasn't anywhere and far from everywhere. In retrospect I think the letters could have really meant Chief Embryonic Officer. Yet there I was, an existence forged by nothing more than a dream, passion and a box of business cards.
Of course there are a number of similarities on the two roads. Leadership is the cornerstone to any successful run as CEO. Whether employees, vendors, customers, or investors, everyone needs to know why they're a part of what you're doing. The most important tool in your belt will be communication. I am often surprised when I encounter people who have subpar communication skills, especially when it comes from seemingly successful professionals. Listening, understanding, responding in a timely manner, empathy, are all critical facets of communication. Decisiveness is a big one. Some decisions will be easier than others. Some will be impossibly difficult. Yet they all require a mental balancing act, simultaneously juggling data, experience, intuition, practicality, and goals, all while adequately monitoring your own passion and drive. Responsibility is huge. Good, bad or otherwise, the CEO should relish all that comes with being able to say, "Yes, that's on me" or "I'll get that done". This last point is the Ying to the Yang that is team building. Developing a strong team is a self-effacing exercise as you seek to surround yourself with people who are better at any number of things than you are. These are people for whom you want to be their greatest cheerleader. These are the people you want to put on a pedestal. So while you are prepared to be the fall-girl (or guy) for that which doesn't go as desired, you're equally quick to give the credit to others who achieved your collective goals. These are but a few of the CEO pillars.
It's been about four years since that box arrived. In that time, I have learned to crawl and walk. I did bump into a bunch of stuff along the way. But I have the walking thing pretty much down pat. Running still causes a few falls here and there. But I'm working on stumbling less frequently and getting up quicker when I do. Every day is a chance to learn, to lead, to inspire, and to create. If I can share a potentially helpful thought for those whose box may be arriving today, it's this. No matter where you are in your evolution, one of the things I have found about being CEO is that no matter what room you're in, there is nobody in your heels (sorry guys, I mean shoes). So remember, "Yes, that's on me" and "I'll get that done".
Lastly, I also learned an interesting irony about being CEO. By the time the title actually means something, you no longer need the business cards. And that's about fifty bucks back to the bottom line. And that's a good thing.