Managing the C Suite

Big Red Car here. Rained like Hell last night in the ATX. It is that time of year — we get the rains in May and September and this is September. Bring it!

So today, we talk about the C Suite and how it operates or should operate.

First, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing — C Suite occupants: Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Technical Officer, Chief Marketing Officer and so on.

You don’t have to have all these folks but you might. They are the leadership of the company.

In the startup world wherein founders typically come in twos or threes, there is a bit of “C Suite Envy” amongst equal founders who must become unequal in order to build an organization.

It is often not enough to have them equal on the cap table someone has to be “the” leader and the first ordering of the alpha male/female pack is the designation of the leader who will undoubtedly become the Chief Executive Officer, the top dog, the CEO.


Deal with it.

Why a CEO, Big Red Car?

Any startup is the simple conversion of a Vision into a Mission, a Strategy, Tactics, Objectives based on Values and within a Culture.

This is simple organizational dynamics of making a “thing” — an organization to deliver a service or a product. Somebody has to run the thing.

[Pro tip: Throw in a business engine canvas, a business process graphic, a dollar weighted org chart, a trio of “pitches” (elevator, taxicab, boardroom), a pitch deck, and a company presentation and you are amongst the top 1% of startups. It really is that easy. Why the Hell do entrepreneurs fight this? Why not just do it?]

Somebody has to be the ultimate authority and therefrom the “C-ness” flows. You can be a Band of Brothers but somebody has to be the CO (commanding officer).

A team of founders can all get their fingerprints on the murder weapon and collaborate in the creation of the founding documents but someone has to be the face of the company.

Why a C Suite at all, Big Red Car?

Investors hate the vulnerability of a single founder. It is a risk because if the founder — a single founder — walks in front of a car or decides to pursue full time navel gazing, there is no company. Their investment is a bust.

Remember in the continuum of “jockey, horse, course,” the CEO is the primary jockey. The investors want a great jockey. The horse (business engine) needs a great jockey.

No sooner do investors decide to bless the jockey with their money than they revert to worrying what happens if the jockey is thrown.

[Pro tip: It is often repeated that 80% of all VC funded businesses replace their CEO in the first four years. VCs are in the CEO replacement business. They — the VCs — know this. It is real and it happens all the time.]

The knee jerk solution to this is to have a deep bench with other persons in close proximity to the CEO — the other C suite members.

So, the big news is this — a C suite and its talented members is an insurance policy — a deep bench — which suggests that the company may be able to heal itself if it gets wounded.

[In the opinion of the Big Red Car, this notion has a little bit of the Easter Bunny mythology about it. Investors should be thinking about a more normal succession before they write their checks. But, hey, why bust up a beautiful story, no?]

How does the C suite operate, Big Red Car?

If the C suiters are also co-founders then the issue is a little less sharp-edged but if not, the same ideas prevail.

1. First, communicate, communicate, communicate.

The original founders, even while going about their now disparate duties and responsibilities, have to have a consistent flat communication mechanism. You have to ensure that there is no compartmentalization of information. Force feed this into the relationships.

[Stop right now, beloved CEO. Are you doing this? Are you?]

2. Second, make an effort to create that relationship 24/7.

This means that the CEO is going to have to invest energy into every one of those relationships knowing that some of that may morph into the CTO talking smack about the CMO.

Listen, evaluate, digest, and work through the issues. Do not take sides. Be the freakin’ peacemaker but keep the relationships open and fully communicative.

3. Third, spend time — formal business time and open time — together. Go to lunch once a week with no agenda other than talking about what bubbles to the surface. Back in the day, this often meant a round of golf, a couple of beers every other week. No agenda, just a time to allow the “stuff” to come out and to have enough time to chat it through.

[Beloved CEO, when was the last time you actually did this? Not thought about it — did it?]

4. Fourth, a bit of formal self-evaluation. Grade yourself as a founding team — how are we doing?

Be brutally honest about the company but be sensitive about the people. “We suck” at marketing. Not “the CMO sucks at marketing.”

Keep the focus on the company and not the individuals even if you feel like this is a cop out. So what, your co-founding mojo is way more important in the short term.

If you have a problem with having to replace a co-founder — different problem. We will talk about that later. For now, be critical but not personal.

5. Fifth, ask the tough questions of yourselves. In this relationship,

What do we want MORE of?

What do we want LESS of?

What do we want the SAME of?

Three answers for each. Do it anonymously before a meeting and then discuss the Hell out of them.

Do not hold anything back. Lance the boil and let the poison come out. Do it once and not all the time. It works.

6. Sixth, take action. Do not ignore anything.

When you go through the annual MORE/LESS/SAME of exercise, make a plan to deal with it and execute the plan.

7. Seventh, celebrate your collective triumphs.

Launch? Go have a steak, drink some beer, pat yourselves on the back. Put the head on the wall.

Positive cash flow? Go piss a bit of it away at a company party.

[Do NOT use runway money to party. You’re smarter than that.]

Celebrate the triumphs and bury the failures. Spread the credit around when you win. Eat the blame when you lose.

8. Eighth, map your progress every six months. In the startup business, you are always focused on the future. Why not?

But it can be incredible to see where you have been over a year, two years. It is incredible.

In that first year, you will cease to be the cherries you were when you founded the company. You will not recognize yourselves.

Keep a record of how you have grown — like a pencil mark on a doorway documenting your height. Celebrate it. Know it. Be amazed by it.

Take pictures. Keep them in a scrap book. One day, new employees will want to look at from whence your big, powerful, successful company came.

Keep the story alive.

9. Last, buy or rent or develop a freakin’ sense of humor. Life is a grand thing. Enjoy it. Laugh. Laugh. Laugh. Cry. Laugh.

Buy some great crying towels and keep them handy cause you will need them.

So, my lovelies, there you have it. The care and feeding of the C suite from someone who has been a CEO for over 33 years. It is really just that easy.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Be kind to someone you love today. It will surprise them and it will make you feel a lot better about you.



5 thoughts on “Managing the C Suite

  1. what are your thoughts on “too many C’s” Chief Revenue Officers, Chief Strategy Officers, etc? Seems like a recent development. Everyone gets a trophy.

    • .
      Banks used to pay poorly and give huge titles to their officers. Bit of the same sometimes. Bit of t ball mentality — everybody gets a hit, nobody is ever out, everyone gets on base, nobody keeps score, both teams win, and then you go out for ice cream.

      At the top, it is essential to discriminate amongst founders, first tier management hires, and equity recipients.

      The titles are like throw aways (for the CEOs).

      A little weird.

      Try to give people what they want without looking like a meat head. It’s called the Meat Head Test.


  2. I wonder if there are other people (like me) lurking out there who read the BRC, who aren’t CEOs and try to apply some of the lessons to their unique situation. That’s my approach currently. I have to imagine if you are a startup CEO, this information is priceless. Thanks!

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