Start-up CEOs Attributes – Hard Lessons

If you were an experienced hang-glider pilot could you fly a Jumbo Jet? Of course, not. Surprisingly though, some folks hesitate when asked: would the reverse be true? Actually, in my younger days I was a glider (motor-less aircraft) sports pilot. It took a lot of professional training and practice to master that skill. Later on, after many years of being away from this sport, I went to a local flying club for refresher flights with an instructor. While spending a day at the airfield I bumped into another trainee, a former F-15 fighter pilot. I was awed: “Gee, it must be a piece of cake for you to fly gliders!” I said. Only it wasn’t. “Hardly anything from flying fighter jets is applicable, I have to un-learn a lot and develop entirely different skills – it really feels awkward.” 

NOTE from Paul: The guest post below is written by Bob Hebert and originally appeared on his site.

I spent time recently with a prominent venture capitalist who has reflected a fair bit on the talent issue in the start-up game.Our discussion focused to the importance of certain attributes for start-up CEOs and how easy it is to misjudge their importance. To this VC, start-ups are like clay of varying grades which, in the hands of talented artisans, sometimes become art of considerable value. The creative process by which that art emerges however is a blend of inspirational, improvisational, experimental and professional activities. The finished product often bears little resemblance to what was envisioned at the outset. The irony of the start-up game is that detailed blueprints get funded while decidedly non-linear alchemy is often where the money is at.

The art of managing start-ups is the ability to feign being in total control while figuring out the company’s technological and market sweet spot (in real-time). This requires the ability to manage stakeholder expectations, implement scalable processes, manage people etc while trying to stay alive on the marketplace autobahn. These are decidedly different skills which organizations nonetheless seek to find in one CEO.

Because execution skills are more linear and easier to evaluate in candidates than the entrepreneurial je ne sais quoi, and because start-ups and their investors are often overly optimistic about the compelling logic of the blueprints they have funded, there is a tendency to skew selection decisions towards execution and scaling skills at the expense of the more entrepreneurial skills required to position the company to be scaled.

The VC spoke of the painful experience of hiring one person who had an impeccable track record of building the Canadian subsidiaries of large US or international tech firms. Because the person had launched these subsidiaries from scratch, she considered herself a ‘start-up’ person. And because several of these firms had become runaway successes, she had the swagger of someone who attributed at least some of that success to herself.

However, as the VC came to realize, this person had never taken raw technology and built a company from it. She had never really contemplated or adapted business models, searched for markets for a new technology or developed ‘go-to-market’ strategies in no-name start-ups. Instead, this person had always been handed technologies with large referenceable accounts in hand, well developed positioning statements, messaging and collateral. Her job was always tactical and full-steam ahead execution. This was a totally different game.

The VC talked of how he has learned that CEOs must be akin to entrepreneurial scientists. They must develop hypotheses, experiment, validate via feedback, adjust, shift and go forward, fast. With so many potential paths before them, they benefit by an entrepreneurial nose that will draw them to where the real opportunity is, and they must move fast while adjusting just as quickly. While company building, execution and scaling are important, without these other abilities the CEO will pick a path and die of starvation on it.

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: