Become the CEO You were Meant to Be

Last spring, Adam Grant published “Think Again – The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know” and it only took listening to one podcast for me to promptly buy his book. It sat in queue until this week and spoiler alert – it’s really good. Especially for someone like me who is always looking for stories to help their clients make the changes they want to make.

One of Grant’s first illustrations highlights several famous wildfire tragedies.

In 1994 the Storm King Mountain fire of Colorado, smokejumpers and wildland firefighters found themselves trapped when a fire jumped unexpectedly and crossed their path. Running up a mountain in rough terrain trying to escape the fire and less than 200 feet away from safety, fourteen perished.

In subsequent investigations it was determined that if the Storm King Mountain firefighters had just dropped their packs and tools, most would have made it to the top of the ridge safely. One of the survivors recalls thinking that he couldn’t believe he was going to drop his chainsaw and run. To which, Grant wrote this:

“If you’re a firefighter, dropping your tools doesn’t require you to unlearn habits and disregard instincts. Discarding your equipment means admitting failure and shedding part of your identity. You have to rethink your goal in your job – and your role in life. 

‘Fires are not fought with bodies and bare hands, they are fought with tools that are often distinctive trademarks of firefighters,’ organizational psychologist Karl Weick explains; ‘They are the firefighter’s reason for being deployed in the first place…Dropping one’s tools creates an existential crisis. Without my tools, who am I?’”

Without my tools, who am I?

For a coach/doctor/builder/engineer/baker/etc. who now finds themselves running a business and not just delivering products or services by herself or himself (or at all), the line could be, if I’m not a (fill in the blank), then who am I?

For example, making the transition to CEO from being a single plumber to a business owner with a fleet of ten trucks requires very different skills. And yet, our default is to fall back to view everything as a plumber in how we train, manage, and lead our team. (Full disclosure – I love our plumber. He kept a total no judgement zone after I accidently dropped my glasses down the toilet, and he repaired the subsequent damage it caused to our plumbing.)

The skills (or tools) that make us great at doing the original work of our business almost always will get in the way of growing that business. 

When entrepreneurs refuse to “drop the tools” of their original profession or trade, they are most often declining to acquire new skills or ask the question of who they need to be or embrace their new role as a CEO which requires them to think and act differently. It is not surprising there are completely different problems in managing cash flow, acquiring, and serving all your customers (not just the ones that you can serve yourself) and training and managing a team to do their best work. 

If you find yourself continuing to be “the plumber” instead of running your business, here’s a few suggestions to make the transition easier:

  • Create a CEO Job Description and start living it as soon as possible. If you are too busy delivering services, start with one hour per week. From there map out a plan to increase your “CEO” time.
  • Join a CEO Networking or Peer Group. Being around others who are already acting in that role or on a similar journey helps us learn and break the patterns that are keeping us stuck. 
  • Tell your Business Advisors what you are doing. If your CPA or attorney or coach knows that you have an interest in upleveling your skills and knowledge, they should be willing to assist you to make that happen. If they can’t or won’t, find new advisors. I often say your critical advisors should have the experience and resources to be just enough in front of you to help you avoid mistakes you would do on your own. Sometimes that takes a little more investment, but almost always it will get you there faster and have a better ROI in the long run.

When I work with my clients to operationalize their business, the CEO role is almost always top of mind because the key to having improved operations is moving service delivery away from the owner (you can learn more about the dangers of a “hub and spoke” model here.) Learning to become the CEO by working with even a part-time COO can help with that process.

I know almost no business founder who magically stopped doing service delivery overnight. It is always an intention and a practice to become the CEO of your business.