The three phases of the CEO role – Mark MacLeod

August 31, 2023 - Mark MacLeod

The three phases of the CEO role

The CEO role evolves across 3 themes as you go from startup to scale:

Phase 1: Product

Until you have product-market fit, you are not really CEO. You are the product manager. Any time not spent in product is a distraction.

Your sole focus should be on iterating your way to a product that one identifiable segment of the market clearly wants.

Don’t bother with any of the other things that you think a CEO “should” be doing. Like board meetings, defining HR policies, creating brand marketing guidelines. None of that matters if the market doesn’t want your stuff.

Phase 2: Distribution

You will not have a goto market leader yet (don’t hire one until you have momentum. You will get a much better leader if you wait). So, it is your job to build the initial goto market machine.

Just as you iterated with product, you now must iterate and test your way until you find at least one proven, repeatable channel for acquiring customers.

This means you need to go deep in marketing, testing channels, writing copy, designing ads, etc. It means picking up the phone and talking to customers. You should be used to that since you likely did a bunch of that in phase 1 doing customer development calls.

It may not feel comfortable. You may not know what you are doing. But no one knows the product better than you. No one can sell the vision better than you.

Phase 3: Team

With a product that the market wants and a reliable way to reach that market, it’s now time to assemble the team.

You already have individual contributors building and selling. You now need your first leaders. This enables you to put yourself out of the non-CEO jobs that you have and start to elevate to being a pure CEO.

Your first leaders should not be C-levels. I wouldn’t even think of hiring a C level till I was approaching $10M ARR. Your first leaders should be “heads of…”. People that can lead others and still have their own personal deliverables. People that are not afraid to get their hands dirty.

These phases overlap. If you have a second product in time, you may find yourself back in product going deep. Distribution never ends. But your personal ownership of it will be short-lived. You will never stop working on acquiring, growing and retaining your leaders.

Which phase are you in with your business?

Photo by Valeria Nikitina

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