When You’re Not CEO Material

TL;DR: Before you even talk to VCs, know your own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and work on them. Know your VCs by asking honest questions early on, and verifying answers in the market. And be proactive and honest about what you really want to be doing at your company, and what matters most to you. When CEO succession drama starts to damage a company, it’s almost always because the founder and the VCs failed to (i) align themselves on their approach to Company management and recruiting early on, and (ii) create an environment of trust and transparency where founders can give up some control without fearing that the fruits of their hard work are being given up as well.

Background Reading:

No matter how much certain investors market themselves as “founder friendly,” no competent VC can guarantee a Founder CEO that they will stay CEO. VCs have a job to do: to turn other people’s money into more money. To the extent they are convinced that keeping a founder as CEO will maximize their chances of doing that (long-term), they will do so. Otherwise, they will tell a founder CEO, sooner or later, that a new CEO is needed.

“Founder Friendly” VCs are the ones who’ve concluded that being friendly to founders helps them make more money.  They are not your BFFs, and you shouldn’t need them to be.

The below are some thoughts, from someone who’s seen it play out many times, on how founders should approach the “Are you CEO material?” issue; both before the hard conversation has arrived, and after.

First: Answer Your Founder’s Dilemma: Rich or King?

If staying in control of your company is much more important to you than achieving an excellent financial return, you should significantly reconsider whether venture capital is right for you at all.  Remember: VCs have a job to do, which is to make lots of money. You bring them on to align yourself with them so that when they make lots of money, you make lots of money.

It’s fine and common if you have a certain ‘mission’ that runs alongside the goal of building successful, profitable business; most great founders do.  But if you’re working with VCs, (i) that mission better be the kind of mission that unlocks lots of benjamins, and (ii) you better be OK at some point handing over the crown and becoming a part of, but not the leader of, management. Because, statistically, most founder CEOs eventually get replaced; voluntarily or involuntarily.

Second: Find Out if a VC is a Coach or Underminer

While all VCs are in it to make money, their philosophies regarding how much “coaching” to give founder CEOs vary wildly. Some VCs know that a founder CEO most likely will need to be replaced once the company has become a true enterprise, but they see value in keeping a founder in the CEO seat for some time and coaching them on their gaps, and also helping them fill some those gaps with other senior hires.  Other VCs virtually never let a first-time founder CEO remain in their position post-Series A. They are fine having them as CTO or COO, but they will almost always make their large check contingent on bringing in one of their preferred professionals.

There is no way to know whether you are working with a Coach or an Underminer other than to (i) directly ask (early) the VC what their perspective is on senior management post-closing, and (ii) examine the existing portfolio of the VC to see what has in fact happened every time they’ve closed a round. Trustworthy advisors who are active in the market are helpful here, as is LinkedIn.

If you’re working with an Underminer, and there are no other options, it is what it is. Work within that reality (see Step 4).

Third: Realize that you are being “sized up” from the moment you first speak to investors.

No one should pretend that “good CEOs” fit neatly into some contrived stereotype. Their personalities, appearance, backgrounds, etc. can vary significantly. However, the core jobs of a CEO, particularly at early stage, are quite uniform: (i) recruit employees, (ii) recruit investors and strategic partners, & (iii) manage and lead everyone to execute effectively on the strategy. From the moment you first interact with investors, they are asking themselves whether a founder CEO can do those things.

Fact: everything about your interactions with lead investors, from the tone and confidence of your communications, to body language and eye contact, and how you respond to push-back and calculated aggression, will influence their perception of whether you are “CEO material.” Complain all you want about prejudices, bias, judging books from covers, etc., but that is just reality. Leadership is not handed charitably. It’s asserted by behavior and results. The concept of “executive presence” is something worth familiarizing yourself with.

No, this does not mean you need to pretend to be some gun-slinging, type A alpha executive. Many great CEOs are calm and collected. But the fact of the matter is that being a CEO of any company requires the ability to have hard conversations and take some heat. If you can’t hold your own in a direct conversation with a VC, they will infer that you can’t do so in the many other key conversations that a CEO needs to have to lead a company.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard something like “That founder? He’s got a bit of an ego,” to which I usually respond, “What do you think it takes?” Ego? Thick skin? Stubborn? Chip on their shoulder? A little prickly? You better f***ing believe it.  Industries usually don’t get blasted open by people overflowing with tenderness and sensitivity.

Fourth: Focus long-term on transparency and influence; not control.

I’ve found over time that many founder CEOs do not actually enjoy being CEO, especially as the company starts growing significantly (~post Series B). They insist on staying in the CEO seat, not because they truly think it best suits their skillset, but because of a fear that stepping down from the top automatically means totally losing influence and visibility into where the company is headed. A culture of transparency and clear communication at the board level can resolve this disconnect and avoid dysfunction.

The key issue here is not whether the Company needs a new CEO, but how to handle succession. The perfect way to create mistrust between founders and their board/management is for VCs to parachute in C-level hires with minimal founder involvement in the recruitment and selection process. It looks something like “We are getting a new CEO, and it’s X (often who was a CEO at a prior portfolio company).” In this scenario, the recruitment of new executives feels far less like the leveraging of much-needed, independent new talent for the benefit of everyone, and more like the investors taking control over management by hiring their loyalists under the pretense of ‘upgrading’ the team. 

When a founder CEO is able to propose her own candidates for the CEO position (and other C-level positions), and play a lead role in interviewing, vetting, and training the prospects, succession goes substantially smoother for everyone. In that scenario, much like a truly independent director, the founders will view the new CEO and other C-level hires as balanced people whose long-term vision and values are closely aligned with the original team. Trust is preserved, and that trust, along with a continued seat at the Board table and contractual protections around their equity and compensation, frees founders to move to positions in the company that are better suited for their skills (CTO, Chief of Product, Chief of Strategy, COO, etc. etc.), and which they usually enjoy more.

Again, different VCs have different philosophies on how to approach CEO/Executive succession, including timing. The only way to find out is to get a dialogue going early on, before term sheets are delivered, and verify the answers by talking, privately, to portfolio companies. As always, having your inner circle of advisors to, confidentially and off-the-record, help you gather that information is key.

Also published on Medium.