Let me ask you a question: why did you start your business?
Was it to explore an innovative idea that wouldn’t stop buzzing around in your mind? Did you feel compelled to help solve a customer’s problems better than your competitors? Were you overstretched as a sole trader and suddenly needed a team?
These are all common — and inspiring — reasons why people launch startup businesses. Reasons we don’t typically hear, however, are love of process, tried-and-tested leadership skills, and the innate ability to grow an organization. And while these traits may not be as glamorous and enticing for startup leaders, they are every bit as essential for long-term success.
Moving from being a ‘startup CEO’ to a ‘scaleup CEO’ means learning an array of new, and often unfamiliar, skills. Or, better still, hiring a leader who already excels at them.
Leadership hiring in a growing startup
Hiring a CEO is one of the first executive recruitment steps a successful startup founder should consider.
It may take some soul searching and honest reflection to realize that the CEO best placed to grow your startup isn’t you. But when you compare the skills of ‘founder/CEO’ and ‘CEO’ on paper, then it’s clear why one person can’t be both — not to the best of their ability, at least.
The growth and scaleup stage of your business requires a CEO who has previously built strong teams and established robust systems. The role itself transitions from being a high energy, reactive, ‘jack of all trades’ to being laser focused on performance and long-term strategy.
And proving that your business has staying power is also key when seeking investment. VCs are far more likely to back growth-stage startups — the ones who not only have an exciting proposition, but a team who can deliver it to market today and in the future.
You wouldn’t rush the fundraising process, nor would you give it only half your energy. So startup founders need to approach their executive search and recruitment with the same tenacity — finding the right CEO to help them grow.
What a growth-focused CEO will bring to your business
Founding a successful startup usually means wearing many different hats: sales, R&D, fundraising, finance, HR, and more. But this has to change as you begin to scale.
You simply can’t be the go-to person for everything your business wants to achieve for the rest of time. And your CEO will complement your position and drive the mission forward.
A growth-focused CEO will make sure everyone understands — and is empowered by — what’s expected of them. Unlike during your startup period, the key objective here is inspiring team members to make their own decisions and solve the problems they come up against.
A great scaleup CEO is also brought in to look towards the future. Whereas your startup focus was thriving in the now, your scaleup business needs to maximize on emerging opportunities and prepare for long-term challenges.
Lastly, a CEO will help shape your company culture. Team dynamics and organizational ethos can never be undervalued in a growing business. When the workday runs late and everyone’s giving 110% to meet (or exceed!) targets each month, will your culture help bond them together and sustain their dedication? Your CEO will make sure of it.
Ideally, your perfect CEO for growth is what Aftab Malhotra (co-founder of GrowthEnabler) refers to as “ambidextrous”. They need to recognize and value the inherent flexibility and innovative nature of a startup, while also bringing efficiency and stability through systems and procedures.
If you have a strong preference for one of these two approaches (and almost all startup founders do), make sure that the leaders you hire can balance out the other half of the equation.
When hiring a CEO for your startup, here’s what I recommend you keep in mind:
Focus on your strengths
What are you good at, what do they need to be good at, and how will those skill sets best work together? Are you galvanized by the idea of chasing aggressive sales targets? Or would you rather immerse yourself in the product and the customer experience, letting them take hold of the growth reins?
The key to a successful founder and CEO partnership often comes down to having clearly defined roles and recognizing each other’s strengths (and weaknesses). And think of it this way: bringing in an outside CEO can give you the head-space you need to focus on areas that truly showcase your strengths and passions. Wouldn’t that be a welcome change?
Keep your eye on the target
What will hiring a CEO enable you and your business to do? Will it skyrocket you towards your growth targets? Will it empower your team to expand its offering? Might you access more investment? All of these are real possibilities.
Put your ego aside and accept that this new hire is a collaborator — not a challenge to your status. Because when the partnership starts paying off, you’ll soon realize you’ve been on the same team all along!
Hire the best CEO for your business
Every business has its unique personality, so too do CEOs. Finding a CEO you have chemistry with offers the best chance of forming a powerful partnership. Consider how well a prospective CEO will fit within the culture you aspire to within your company, as well as how comfortable you feel with them personally. Mutual respect is always a must.
The wish-list for a growth-oriented CEO might seem overwhelming, but it is achievable. This is where a good executive search firm is worth its weight in gold. With an executive search specialist at your side, you’ve not only got access to established, reliable networks full of C-Suite talent, but you’ll have a sounding board and recruitment partner, too. You may not have hired a CEO before, but they have — countless times over. That means you can trust them to ask the right questions and find the best match so that in just a few month’s time you’ll be looking at those “aggressive” growth targets in the rear view mirror while you’re shooting for the stars.
As a director at Key Search, Delano Brand specializes in helping fast growth start- and scale-ups in the internet economy hire top leadership talent. His clients have included Wish, Ring, WeTransfer, Amazon, Just Eat TakeAway, GetYourGuide, Carvolution, Magaloop and Zenjob. Key Search is a boutique Executive Search firm that helps startups, investors and established brands hire the leaders they need to scale their tech business.