Solving The ‘CEO Said’ Syndrome
There comes a point when your job is no longer to be a founder. It can happen because you raised institutional capital, reached market fit, or hired enough people that the system becomes more important than your individual contribution.
Unfortunately this transition is only possible through your own realization that being a founder is very different from being a CEO. The required shift from one to a system of many takes a lot of empathy and self reflection, something that I didn’t personally realize the first time around.
As you make this transition there is a subtle event that occurs within your company that reinforces you have arrived. I call it the “CEO said” syndrome.
Early on it starts in very innocent ways. You have a handful of people, someone comes up and asks if they can get your feedback on their work. Of course you say yes and like any passionate human being you can’t help but immediately respond to what you see. Without asking them what kind of feedback they need you start talking out loud…”Why is this like this?” “Why is this piece here or that piece there?” “Why aren’t we doing it like this or like that?”
Unintended, a simple request for feedback becomes the new mandate…oh the CEO (insert your name) didn’t like it and said we should do blah and blah.
That isn’t actually what you said, but it’s too late now.
Forgetting for a moment that you are the CEO you responded in a manner that you would expect any normal person on the team to respond…with honesty. Except your form of honesty is not like any other person on the team. And since you actually haven’t been in their shoes (not being in charge) you don’t realize the weight of your actions.
The interaction you just shared doesn’t actually stop there. That same person takes your indirect feedback and while collaborating with the team continues to mention..”oh the CEO didn’t like that and thought we should…” Causing the rest of the team to now hesitate in their conviction.
The result is bigger than a slightly stalled project, it injects a small amount of doubt that weakens all future decisions that group of people will make. They will began to wonder…is the CEO just going to change my work in the end?”
Fast forward a few months or even a few years and that pattern compounds itself. You like feeling connected to what is going on, pretending that you are just one of the gang, so you continue to offer feedback to anyone that asks. Your “open door” policy unintentionally becomes an invitation to change directions.
What you fail to realize this entire time is if these interactions are done wrong, they have the potential to cripple the culture you are trying to build. All the while pretending to your management team and Board that you are growing up as a leader, each one of these occurrences actually takes you backwards.
Preventing the “CEO said” syndrome from taking over your culture is critical, especially early on. Even as a second time CEO I have to fight this bad habit everyday.
Here are a few things that I have learned…
1. Understand Who Else Has Reviewed The Work.
Before agreeing to provide feedback, first understand who else they have talked to. If people are asking your opinion before interacting with their peers you have a problem. It means you are not building a team, instead you are building a dictatorship where approval from the boss is all that matters.
The more you can dig to understand why they are coming to you the more appropriately you can respond.
2. Understand If The Work is 30% or 90% Done.
The type of feedback you give at 30% versus 90% is very different. But more importantly the reason you care about the answer to this question is because this provides direct feedback on how strong or weak your team process is.
If you see work that is 30% complete with foundational pieces that are in alignment with the company’s strategy then you are on the right track. If not, you need to re-address with the team how/why the foundation of the project is so off course.
If you see work that is 90% complete and tightly coupled to the company strategy then your team process is really working. If not, you have a deeper problem with your process, an immediate risk in derailing the project, and the opportunity to further weaken the future confidence of the team.
3. Don’t Actually Give Your Opinion.
When people ask for your feedback they aren’t really asking for your opinion. You may think this is the case, but they really aren’t.
This means the words “I think” should never leave your mouth. Instead you want to talk through the problem with them to help them make a better decision. You can do this by asking questions…”what problem are you trying to solve,” “what decisions are you trying to resolve,” or “what are you struggling with?” Or you can talk out loud to what you experience when looking at their work…”this confuses me,” “I don’t understand this,” or “I was surprised by this.”
They key to this interaction is being able to create a dialogue without telling them how to solve the problem. As soon as you give a “suggestion” for how to solve the problem you have given your feedback.
It’s a very hard discipline to practice, but it’s a subtle difference to building a culture that learns how to make decisions. If not, you end up building a company that constantly requires your approval before it can move forward. That may make you feel good as a CEO but will badly inhibit the team from doing its best work.
4. Have Feedback Processes.
If your team is coming to the CEO for feedback, something is broken. Perhaps you are still playing too many roles. Perhaps you haven’t taught your team how to make decisions. Or perhaps you haven’t created consistent feedback loops. Regardless, you should pay very close attention to how frequently your team asks for your opinion.
At Moment we have a daily stand-up, weekly design review (anything can be reviewed), bi-monthly sprint planning (plan and provide feedback), and a quarterly off-site (dive deep into feedback topics).
We still have room to improve in providing real-time feedback, but this team process provides a place to start.
5. Talk Openly About The Transition.
You can’t walk in one day and announce that you are now going to be a CEO. And that all the bad team building habits your team has experienced are going to end. Neither you or the team would be able to handle this abrupt change.
Instead, it should be a constant discussion about how your role is going to change, the impact it will have on the team, and how they can help. Especially with young founders/teams it’s important for your entire team to support this decision in helping you become a great CEO. If everyone in the company wants to get better at their craft, this will be easy for them to support.
With Moment at 9 people I am just now making the transition from a founder to a CEO. Alleviating myself from any daily functions we are beginning to a develop a team that doesn’t require my constant feedback to be successful. Organized into three small teams that each focus on a single objective, I try to spend a majority of my day teaching others how to make decisions, lead, and give each other feedback.
Even thought this is my second time around, killing the “CEO said” syndrome is difficult. Learning to teach instead of just playing the game is something that I am especially committed to with Moment.
*Image Credit: Quenieeandthedew via Creative Commons.