Are you operating at the right altitude? – Mark MacLeod

June 2, 2020 - Mark MacLeod

Are you operating at the right altitude?

Much has been written about the role of a CEO, generally, and in a high growth startup environment specifically. Perhaps the clearest post on this subject was from Fred Wilson back in 2010. According to Fred, A CEO “does only three things:

Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders.

Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company.

Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.”

Pretty clear, right? Three things. All highly strategic. Highly impactful. Why is it then that so many CEOs set themselves up for the impossible by being responsible for these three things AND getting their hands dirty in the all the other aspects of running a business?

To be clear, early on, you don’t have the luxury of sitting back and thinking deep thoughts. But as soon as you have some cash (either from profits or investment) and have a competent senior team around you, you need to hold back, focus on the core CEO priorities and stay out of the weeds.

I see too many CEOs whose days are just packed. One meeting to the next. By the time their meetings are done, hundreds of emails await them, because, after all, they are involved in every part of the business and, therefore, everyone wants (or feels they need to get) their input.

This is disempowering to the broader leadership team and completely unsustainable for the CEO.

CEO = CDO: Chief Decision Officer

I boil Fred’s three points into one overall purpose for a CEO: To make the few, crucial decisions that will ensure the company is on the right trajectory. The right altitude is not making 8 decisions / day (i.e. 1 per meeting). It could be 2 -3 decisions per month or quarter.

The first decision is around why your company exists. What need in the market does it serve? How will it serve it? The ‘how’ speaks to many aspects including the solution, company values, market segmentation, etc.

The next decision is around who you need around you in order to deliver on that purpose. The stronger your team, the more leverage and impact you will have as a leader.

The third decision is around funding strategy: knowing what type of funding is right for you and knowing when you will be in a position of strength to get it.

This is all you should be doing as CEO. No need to be signing off on marketing programs, branding, scrum reviews, new HR policies or the many other things that your strong leadership team is more than capable of handling.

When I think about the pace of decision-making if you are operating at the right level, I think of Warren Buffet. Warren famously has very few meetings. He spends his days reading and thinking. He makes a very small number of decisions. But they are big ones, given how much capital gets deployed as a result.

Those few, crucial decisions require time for thought and reflection. You can’t do that in between a packed meeting schedule.

Even with our tiny six person team at SurePath, I managed my schedule to create time every day for reflection. I had no meetings in the mornings. That time was reserved for thinking about deal strategy for a client or similar important topics. We had one recurring meeting all week. I was clear on my role and its boundaries and had complete trust in my carefully selected team members to fulfill their roles. It was all about leverage. Their autonomy gave me maximum leverage, which gave our company maximum leverage.

Questions to consider


What would your day/ week/ life be like if you let go of the daily details and fully trusted and empowered your team members to execute?

What would happen to morale, engagement and performance if you focused on enabling and growing your team rather than working in the trenches with them?

What would happen to the trajectory of your company if you were able to just focus on the three core CEO priorities?

What impact would this have on your overall happiness and personal life?

Photo by Fabrizio Conti on Unsplash

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