(Editor’s note: Jeanne M. Sullivan is General Partner at StarVest Partners. She submitted this story to VentureBeat.)
I feel strongly that the CEO, despite the accomplishments made by other members of the team, is the key person who most often correlates to the success of the company. The VP of sales might argue that he or she brings in the revenue. The CTO might take credit for building the product. And the VP of marketing could say they’re responsible for putting it all together and bringing it to market. But it’s the leader at the top that’s the key driver behind how well a company will ultimately perform.
So, what makes a great CEO? It comes down to a few things:
A great CEO leads. They lead the team by creating a strong culture among the troops and continually fueling a vibrant “esprit de corps.” They put together the financing. I have observed that they do not just point the way – they say, “Follow me up the mountain, and I will show you the way.”
The great ones are both cheerleaders and task masters, only most never use those terms to describe their function. The leading CEO makes employees want to work with the same mad fervor to help achieve the company’s goals.
A great CEO is clear. They define and communicate the strategy and create buy-in for this strategy along the way among the team members. The greatness shows because they know they have already gotten the troops together to help build the strategy or the go-to-market plan, and they provide employees with many chances to weigh in with their views.
Employees are not left wondering about the strategy because they can repeat the strategy. It might even be laminated and hanging on the office walls.
A great CEO gets their hands dirty. They will help create a go-to-market distribution plan and will drive revenue and results. They are with employees in the field closing the big sale or figuring out why the company lost one. They are right there, balancing the priorities and inspiring their team to help win the next opportunity. They are calling their Rolodex for a partnership or connection. They are quick to sort out mistakes in a “blameless autopsy” so that success may be achieved the next time.
A great CEO is strategic. They know what to do and how to do it. Here is the magic ingredient: He or she is able to look right, look left and look out over time to see the moves and countermoves of the competition and react accordingly.
A great CEO knows when they aren’t a great CEO. They know what they’re good at – and when it isn’t being a CEO. They’re willing to seek others more able than themselves to take the helm. They might reposition themselves as the Chairman or Chief Strategy Officer or Chief Revenue Officer and can realize that maybe it is time to lead a larger organization, or smaller.
If a company is in its early days and seeking financing, as an investor I often ask myself: “Is this the long-term CEO for the company? Can this person take the company public or create an exit?” If the answer is “no,” this can often lead the investor to say “no” to the investment.
A sense of humor, maniacal focus on the goal and critical self-awareness are critical ingredients for success.