POINT OF VIEW

You can’t get there on your own

We often associate the success of great tech companies with one iconic leader: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Marc Benioff, Mark Zuckerberg, and so on. But if you look closely, you will see that behind every one of these leaders there is always a strong team driving the company forward.

Some of the tech world’s key supporting executives such as Steve Ballmer, Sheryl Sandberg and Jonathan Ive are well known. Others like Airbnb’s Belinda Johnson are on the rise. But there are many more out there, running the show behind the scenes, and enabling the success of their CEOs.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins argues that for a company to sustain its success over a long period of time, it needs what he calls Level 5 leadership. This is exemplified by leaders who “display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They're incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.” Level 5 leaders recognize the importance of building an exceptional executive team and surrounding themselves with the right people for each stage of their company’s growth.

Lay the foundations for building your executive team before you find yourself in dire need of them

As a company grows, the team leading it needs to grow with it. This is something you as the CEO need to think about early. You have to lay the foundations for building your executive team before you find yourself in dire need of them. Some CEOs find it hard to resist the temptation to run everything themselves and to stay involved in every aspect of the company. This is not sustainable. If you are already well into scale-up stage, and you as the CEO cannot step away from the company for a week without everything collapsing, there is a problem.

Without the right team in place, you will soon end up in a vicious cycle. You notice some members of your team are underperforming. You start spending a lot of time on them and carrying some of their load. Your trust in them diminishes along with your focus on the business. Things start slipping in other areas. You become increasingly stressed and overworked. More things slip. You end up spending more time firefighting than capitalizing on new opportunities. Before you know it, the board starts to notice things are not running smoothly. Their confidence in your leadership dwindles. And that is when they start to think it may be time to look for someone else to take the company “to the next level”.

You need to avoid getting into this cycle in the first place. You can do this by looking out for the warning signs early on.

Are you:

  • Feeling overworked and still making slow progress?
  • Spending a lot of time on one area of the business?
  • Always second-guessing the decisions of one of your executives?
  • Postponing important changes, because it is not the “right time”?
  • Finding yourself always having to tell executives how to do their job?
  • Not learning from your team and feeling pulled down by them?
  • Keeping someone in their job despite having given them a poor review?
  • Getting the advice that you should delegate more?

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you are in danger of being caught in the vicious cycle and you need to dig yourself out quickly.

Stop making up for the deficiencies of your team. Figure out what you and the organization needs. Let go of low performers and bring on strong executives who can scale with the business for the next three years. Upgrading your executive team does not have to mean recruiting solely from the outside. In some teams like engineering, integrating an external manager who is not intimately familiar with the product and doesn’t have the respect of the team can be challenging.

In this case, you may want to promote someone from within. The benefit of doing this is that when you promote someone who has been with the company for some time, they can hit the ground running and leverage their existing knowledge of the business and the team. This can also incentivize high performers to step up. You can design learning programmes for them to acquire the key skills they need to grow into managers.

Just remember that your best engineers will not necessarily be the best managers. Evaluate promotion candidates on their desire to manage, their leadership capabilities, and recruiting skills. For the other star performers who are not fit to manage, you need to create a parallel progression track so that becoming a manager is not the only way up.

Once you have amazing people in place, you can focus on your key responsibilities as a CEO — setting the vision, orchestrating the work of the teams, and paving the path for growth. Your leadership team will focus on the day-to-day management and making the machine run smoothly.

In a fast-growing business, your team will evolve over time. This is something that you need to manage properly. During my 18 years as the CEO of Business Objects, we had four CFOs, four CTOs, and four COOs. The person who was right for us at, say, $50m in revenue was no longer the right one at $100m, $500m, or $1.5bn.

Lastly, as you bring on leaders with more experience than you, don’t fear that they will take your job or diminish your influence. On the contrary, if you hire great people and build a highly functional executive team, they will push you up, make you a better and more successful CEO, and help the company reach new heights.

If you hire great people and build a highly functional executive team, they will push you up, make you a better and more successful CEO, and help the company reach new heights

This article first appeared in the book that accompanied Balderton's 2019 Dream Teams people summit in London.

You can read Kiana's post on DreamTeams here.

Stay in touch with Balderton

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on news from Balderton, and our portfolio.