3 min read

The existential crisis that every CEO must confront

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Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp

As your company reaches about 100 people the role of CEO in a startup changes. You go from being the person who does everything to the person who doesn’t have to do anything. You’ve hired great people who are experts in their relevant area.

This realization requires a shift in mentality - you need to give yourself a different lens from which to make decisions. The value that you create as CEO is measured over a longer period of time. This can be both confronting and reassuring at the same time.

Deciding where to spend your time can be challenging

As a CEO, you have to choose where to spend your time. This is difficult because you won’t get a lot of feedback in the short-term about whether you’ve made the right choice. I constantly struggle with whether I’m putting my time into the right things.

It’s very easy to fill your calendar. It’s like when you put rocks and sand into a glass - you have to decide which order to put them in. If you put the sand in first there’ll be no space for the rocks, but if you put the rocks in first there’ll always be room for the sand. As a CEO, you have to make time for the big things, even if they aren’t urgent, because you can easily fill your calendar with the sand. You have give yourself a chance to think about the big things. This means you do have to say no to other things that you could help on.

It’s also necessary to create time to do things that are important but not urgent - like meeting with other CEOs. I love doing this, but it can easily become something I spend a lot of time on so I have to set thresholds. I need to define how much time I want to dedicate to it and stick to it.

The most challenging tasks are those that in and of themselves might not feel powerful or meaningful, but over time they make a big difference. For example, I still have founder interviews with everybody that joins the company. While the decision to hire somebody has already been made, one of the founders meets everyone so that we’re still accountable (read more about our hiring process here).

This process tells us a lot about the hiring managers and gives us an opportunity to introduce new hires to the way we think. While there are many other things I could do with this time, these meetings help new people make a connection with the company. The value isn’t instant, but I strongly believe it adds up over time.

Spend time on what you’re good at and what gives you energy

It's important to be deliberate about what you choose to do. As Dieter Rams says “less, but better.” By focusing on things you’re good at and being deliberate about it you can do less but be better at it. I know this isn’t always possible, particularly if you work across multiple time zones and competing interests, but it can help you to frame where you spend your time.

It’s also important to spend time doing things that give you energy. As a CEO, there are so many things that will drain you, so you need to prioritise things that give you the energy to keep going. This involves slowing down your ego and understanding what you need to work on, for you. For example, one of the areas I get a lot of energy from is working with our product. I enjoy spending time at the front end, looking at designs and thinking about how some of the features will be delivered.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons why your people may not want the CEO to be involved in those conversations, so it’s important to articulate to them why you need to be involved. In my case, I’ve let our product team know that it’s important for me to do - not just to provide useful input but also to keep me sane.

How you protect your time as a CEO is critical. You need to make sure you’re not just doing things that other people want you to do, but also do things you're good at or that you enjoy. That’s because it’s these things that will ultimately make you successful. They give you the energy to create value over the long-term, not just for yourself, but for the company as a whole.

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