War Time CEO, War Time CEO… – Mark MacLeod

December 14, 2022 - Mark MacLeod

War Time CEO, War Time CEO…

Of all the former operators turned VCs, a16z’s Ben Horowitz gets it the most. He truly gets and articulates the struggle that is operating. As a result, he is essential reading for startup CEOs.

It is no surprise then that CEOs still regularly cite an article of his from 2011 entitled Peacetime CEO, wartime CEO.

If you have not read it (I recommend you do), the premise is that CEOs behave very differently in times of peace, defined as when a company has a structural advantage and is leading a growing market, than they do durng times of war (when competition is fierce and/ or the business is facing an existential crisis).

While I don’t disagree with the article per se, I think it is dangerous for 99% of startup CEOs out there. In my view, if you have raised capital and are burning said capital, then you are at war. Period. It is never peace time.

Most startup CEOs employ peacetime tactics. They seek consensus, invest in warm, fuzzy culture and pampering. They allow deadlines to be missed. But I would argue none of those CEOs are in peacetime.

It is dangerous to think that just because your startup is funded & growing that things are good and you can relax. You can’t compare your position, no matter good it is, to the essentially monopolistic advantages of Google (in search), Cisco (in communications) that the article refers to. That is not your reality.

I find that startups exist in one of two states: Either struggling to create growth or struggling to keep up with it. Both of these involve struggle. Neither is a cause for peacetime tactics.

Struggling to create growth is self-evident. But struggling to keep up with growth is still war-time. Staff might start to get soft, complacent. Taking the wins for granted. Staff, and leaders especially, will struggle to keep up with the growth. Processes will break down. People and processes that once added value will cease to add value. Politics might creep in. Values might get compromised. As you go through hyper growth and bring on lots of new team members, you will make bad hires. And the newly expanded team will struggle with communication and alignment.

I could go on and on.

These are all champagne problems. I get it. But they are, nevertheless, problems.

I hate to say it, but the job you have signed up for is relentless. There is never peace time. You will always be at war. Accept that and make sure you are going into battle with the most bad ass team you can.

In war, you need to constantly monitor for signs of threat. You need elite teams to execute the most challenging missions. You need to train your people. You need to push them to weed out the ones who just won’t cut it when times get tough. The same is true in your business.

Now, war is taxing and brutal. I am not glorifying it. And I don’t advocate that CEOs take on more stress than they already have. But…. I believe no small measure of the stress that they have comes from not realizing that they are at war. From letting their guard down and being disappointed when team members don’t work out or projects don’t get delivered.

The surest way to be disappointed is to have unrealistic expectations. If you assume things will go wrong and will change, then you won’t be disappointed. You will be ready. In battle you need to be ready for anything at any time.

Are you ready?

Photo by Piotr Makowski on Unsplash

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