Be the Best CEO You Can Be

You are the Majority Owner, so you are the CEO. Right? Not necessarily. There are generally three paths to majority ownership of a company. You started it. You acquired it from an unrelated third party. You bought or inherited it from a related party.

You are the Majority Owner, so you are the CEO. Right? Not necessarily. There are generally three paths to majority ownership of a company. You started it. You acquired it from an unrelated third party. You bought or inherited it from a related party.

Each path has some common similarities and differences. The goal is to be an effective CEO and it is worth exploring what each of the paths take. We will begin by examining what it takes to be an effective start up CEO. 

Path 1: You Started the Company 

If you started the company, chances are you’re automatically the CEO because startups rarely begin with a fully developed management team. Many startups are the activation of a dream or invention by highly motivated people who may or may not have sufficiently developed skills to build, guide and direct the growth of their firms.

Some inventors fall into this category. The story of  The Polaroid Land Camera Company illustrates the problems of the inventor as the CEO, Dr. Ed Land, the founder, was a pure inventor. He lacked most of the skills and mindset to become the effective CEO needed to drive his company. His investors eventually realized Dr. Land would never be the person to drive the company to its zenith, and they relegated him to his laboratory, trotting him out once a year to show off his latest creative products. If he had remained at the helm, it would never have been the success it was in the mid-20th century.

Path 2: You Inherited or Bought the Company

If the company you have started isn't your first rodeo (i.e., you have been the majority owner/CEO of another firm or firms before), you have a leg up on some of the things that an effective CEO needs to do. Unfortunately, most CEOs get to some semblance of effectiveness through trial and error, with a lot of emphasis on the error part of the equation. There is no handbook with checklists available to prescribe the exact ways to get to effectiveness, but experiences as part of a key management team help in making decisions about what to do and what not to do and when to do them.

I think it helps you become the CEO or owner of your company if you have done three things: 

Get an education in a field appropriate to the industry in which you will be. While an English major education might be good intellectual capital, that education is unlikely to provide you much intelligence for running your manufacturing company.

Get a job with a company in a field related to your intended industry. Learn from seasoned professional managers how they do business, make decisions and decide policy. That usually means working for a public firm or a large private firm. Perform to a level that earns you one or more promotions. It is quite useful, by the way, to try to operate in different functional areas so you get a semblance of the bigger picture that is so important to the growth and success of any firm, including yours. 

Get a job in a smaller firm in the industry you intend to enter. See how the CEO of that firm does things. Compare your experience there with your experience in the larger firm. Particularly for those who are going to be inheritors of a family business, this is important. If all you learn about running a company is the way your family does it, you are going to need significant outside advice to work your way through the minefield of your business landscape.

Path 3: You Acquired the Company from an Unrelated Party

The problems of the startup CEO are similar, but not the same, for the "Acquired It" CEO. Unless you have experience with the company you purchased, you are starting fresh but with an existing management team and employees you know little about other than what you have been told and what your due diligence in the acquisition process has told you. The good news is you have a management team and employees who don't have to be built from ground zero. The bad news is you have a management team and employees who already know the company, its history, climate, culture, etc., before you try to imprint your own values and culture on the entity you acquired.

One of several acquisitions I have been involved with illustrates the conundrum described above. The CEO, in his terminal illness days, brought in a new CEO who had related industry experience and a solid track record of success in his prior employment with a professionally managed firm. This was a last-ditch effort to sell the company because he had offered favorable terms of sale to the four key managers (I called them the "Gang of 4") only to have them reject the offer because, frankly, there was not an entrepreneurial manager in the group. That led to a two-year war with the management team where they undermined him and thwarted progress. The dying CEO was smart enough (thanks to good advisors and legal advice) to put into place a golden parachute for the new CEO which would have made "the Gang of 4" finally realize their financial future was closely tied to this CEO's and the firm's success. I might add this firm was successful before the transition and the "Gang of 4" could have purchased the firm with its own cash reserves without hurting the capital/cash flow needs of the business. Sometimes things aren't rational!

End note on the story above: The new CEO gradually overcame the "Gang of 4" resistance, added key management talent, repurposed the roles of the gang members and continued to build the business. Many of the things he did are integrated into this blog. The company got substantially larger, profitably, and was acquired by a major player in its industry a few years ago for a payoff several times larger than the value of the company at the time of the aborted transaction. 

Key Actions of the Effective CEO

There are three critical actions that must take place if you are to become an effective CEO, regardless of whether you are the starter, the acquirer or the inheritor. They are:

1. Creating a clear vision of what you want the company to become.

2. Developing a clear articulation of the core values you espouse to guide the execution of that vision.

3. Building a cohesive team to support that execution. 

Clear Vision

A clear vision of what you want your company to become over a specified time line is the starting point. It is your company, after all, so what do you want it to look like when it is finished?

If you started the company because you decided that because you know how to do something, you can run a business that does that something (Gerber's definition of a "technician"), you might have only traded a job for a job because having a technician's vision does not translate well into creating and developing a successful company.

Core Values

You need to establish early on the core values on which you want to build your company. This is true whether it's a startup, acquired company or inherited organization. This might be the most important part of what you need to do to create a successful firm. If your core values are not clearly built and defined, the rest of the development process will be flawed and could result in a lot of trial and error. 

If you are acquiring or inheriting a company, a substantial change in already established core values will be problematic. Most established firms inherently resist change and it might not be a pleasant experience. If you are a startup, you start with a clean slate, but that creates its own problems unless you have spent some quality creative time defining what you want your company to be and become.

Build a Team

You need to build a team capable of executing the vision and the core values. Again, this is problematic for all situations. The startup rarely has the right people to grow the firm because of limited resources and time. The acquisition firm will find a lot of the incumbents unworthy or inadequate after applying Gino Wickman's "Traction People Analyzer" (Gets It, Wants It, has the Capacity to Grow) evaluation of the existing team. The family business equation gets more complex many times since relatives often occupy positions in the firm are there because they have the right last name, not necessarily the right talents. Changing that, regardless of the ownership circumstance, is rarely easy or painless. Getting the right people on your bus is critical to venture success. 

You might have noted to this point I have not used the words "leader" or "leadership" even one time. The most effective CEOs lead by inspiring their team to execute coordinated strategies and plans consistent with the company vision and  core values. Thus, leadership is implicit in all that has been stated in this treatise.  

Getting Help

The effective CEO addresses all three components whether personally or through the help of others because that foundation makes or breaks the progress and success of the enterprise. All three paths to majority ownership and potential effective CEO title have a common problem here: none of them can do the three essential tasks of the effective CEO without help. The help, and the degree to which it is needed, is usually a function of the experiences, vision and team development available to the CEO. 

For the startup CEO especially, the needs for outside help and advice are critical. For those who have never navigated the breadth and growth of their enterprises before, seeking advice and guidance from others who have already do it is central to success.  No CEO is an island.

Finding and utilizing the experience, practice and wisdom of others who have "been there, done it" is a major part of the learning curve.  That can be accomplished in several ways, including:

l. Seeking out a guru who has successfully navigated the waters in which you are about to dip your toes. 

2. Create a Board of Advisors or join a group of CEOs whose willingness to guide you through the uncharted waters and listen to your concerns and fears is another way to get this help. 

3. Embrace the EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) Gino Wickman details in his book, Traction.  The EOS/Traction process is difficult for start up firms.   It is imperative, in my opinion, that it be implemented in acquisition and inherit situations. 

4. The COSE Strategic Planning/CEO Development course is a logical way to help those facing the acquisition/inheritance situation.  The course provides tools and information that helps with both strategy formulation and strategy execution.  Moreover, it gives participants access to over 800 business owners/key employees with at least one thing in common - they all have "drunk the kool aid" of the course and are almost always willing to share their experiences and expertise with those who have also taken the course. 

I've Tried Becoming an Effective CEO, But I Am Failing

Now what? You can usually deal with the vision and the core values, but not always. Some entrepreneurs simply cannot get past the habit of chasing new ideas much of the time so that the Vision is never in equilibrium. If that's your case, you need to really embrace EOS and the Traction process so you can stay focused. Where a large portion of would-be effective CEOs fall down is in team building. The solution: Hire an “Integrator” (Wickman's terminology) who can do that for you. You might even have to make that person COO or President, and she or he will run your company while you focus on those ideas and inspirations that are the next steps for the advancement of the company. It’s important to recognize and reconcile the possibility you are not the person to lead your company day to day. Remember Dr. Land earlier in this blog? It is not a weakness to realize that to achieve company success you need to take a different role. It is better to be the designer who recognizes his or her weaknesses and finds a solution to overcome them than to forge blindly ahead towards sub-par performance.  

5 Takeaways

Takeaway No. 1: It isn't easy to become an effective CEO. If it were easy, a lot more people would be effective CEOs.

Takeaway No. 2: Becoming an effective CEO is a process, not an event. Getting relevant experience and education helps a lot.

Takeaway No. 3: Get help from those who have successfully been in your shoes. Their experiences frequently stop you from going down blind alleys, helps you keep focus and form a safety net for you while giving you "next steps" insight.  "Been there, seen it, done it" is rarely overrated!

Takeaway No. 4: Recognize you might not ever have the tools to be the effective CEO of your business. Someone else might need to be brought in to take that role.

Takeaway No. 5: Remember the goal, not the ego. The name of the game is a successful, profitable enterprise with great rewards for all concerned (employees, customers, and you).

Jeffrey C. Susbauer, Ph.D. is Associate Professor Emeritus at the Monte Ahuja College of Business, Cleveland State University where he has taught strategic management and entrepreneurship courses since 1970. A long-time consultant to scores of businesses, a member of the boards of advisors to over 60 companies, he co-founded and serves as the principal instructor for the COSE Strategic Planning/CEO Development Course for the past 36 years. The course is concerned with providing entrepreneurs with education to guide their vision, strategic thinking and execution in their businesses. 

Learn more about the Strategic Planning/CEO Development course or contact Jeff via email

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  • Next up: 3 Things to Know: Being More Efficient at Work

    3 Things to Know: Being More Efficient at Work

    There’s nothing more frustrating than realizing you’ve wasted your day, failing to be productive, or feeling overwhelmed by everything on your plate. Here are three things you need to know to increase your productivity in the workplace.

    In our 3 Things to Know series we explore a variety of topics popular on the Mind Your Business site. This month we are taking a close look at what our experts have written on the subject of efficiency. This article just might change your level of productivity, and your work life.

    The first thing you need to know: It’s possible your meetings suck.

    Yours is not unlike many other workplaces if your meetings are unproductive, boring and something everyone dreads. It’s time to make your meetings your favorite time of the day. Check out this meeting plan for a typical company, including an outline of who should be in each meeting, how frequently they should occur and how long they should last. And, we have you covered in terms of meeting content. Here are sample meeting agendas for a variety of different meeting types.

    The second thing you need to know: How to tackle your to-do list.

    As a business owner you probably have a to-do list a mile long. The more organized you are, the more hours you’ll be able to find in the day to do the things you want to do. From becoming a grocery ninja to simplifying your wardrobe, here are some effective life hacks that can help you get your to-do list under control.

    The third thing you need to know: How to use brain hacks to set and achieve goals.

    Of course, part of being productive is knowing how to set goals for yourself and your company, and then actually achieving them. Sometimes the secret is in your head. Here are three brain hacks you can use to establish goals and then succeed in reaching them.

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  • Next up: BizConCLE Spotlight: Live Your Mission Statement

    BizConCLE Spotlight: Live Your Mission Statement

    Erica Javellana joined, Inc. in 2007 as a Human Resources Generalist where she quickly rose through the ranks to lead the team as the Employee Relations Manager. We sat down with her recently to gain insight on what other businesses can learn from Zappos’ unconventional organizational structure.

    By developing a company culture and committing to it, you can make a positive change within your organization. has grown their business because of their unique culture and the service they provide to their customers. Prior to her upcoming keynote at BizConCLE, we sat down with Zappos Insights’ Speaker of The House, Erica Javellana to talk more in-depth about finding your company’s culture and what it takes to bring about organizational change.

    Q: What is one takeaway you want people to walk away from your keynote having learned?

    Javellana: It’s about finding your culture. And the most important thing about that is committing to it. You can have a mission statement. You can claim to have a culture. But if you’re not committed to that, it’s a moot point. The emphasis has to be on finding your culture. Find what works best for you and what defines your company and culture and commit to that. You can list off all you want from your value statement, but it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not going to live by it.

    It starts with the onboarding process and being transparent to the candidates when you’re bringing them in. If you hire the right people, you get the right culture. People will understand what they’re coming into. You can tell them, “We’re not a company that just says it. We’re going to walk it.” When I first started at Zappos, the hiring manager told me that all of the basic foundations I knew about HR were great and we want that. But everything else, just ignore because what we’re doing here is we’re willing to make exceptions to the rule. It created an environment where autonomy speaks volumes. We hire adults and treat them like adults. Let’s trust our employees to be adults and make smart choices. Autonomy is important. Trust your employees. And tell them when they’re brought on and when they’re interviewing that you’re a company that lives its core values.

    Q: Is it possible to change a company’s culture entirely?

    Javellana: Absolutely. And it depends on scale. I hear people say all the time, “I just don’t have that kind of clout.” Of course you do. Maybe it’s not to go straight to the CEO or the VP or the president, but you can begin making those small changes in your job, or your department, or your team. Be that part of the change. Everyone else is going to be wondering, “What is that department so darn happy?” Those are the small changes you can make in your own power. Change your mindset. Love what you do, be passionate about what you do, and it will trickle over to others. People always say, “I’m just a whatever.” Well, be the best damn whatever you can be. That’s going to trickle down.

    Q: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned working at Zappos?

    Javellana: You’ve heard of KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid? It’s a cliché, but the most important thing I’ve learned is really simple: You can’t have happy customers if you don’t have happy employees. It’s so simple, but it’s huge. That alone drives the quality of customer service and your company’s brand. We believe if our employees are happy, our customers will be happy. People expect that we have some sort of secret formula at Zappos and it’s not a secret formula. If you follow the simple clichés and commit to them, you will be surprised. I think people overanalyze things.

    Want to hear more about what Javellana has to say about the best way to look at your company’s organizational structure? Register for the BizConCLE show on Oct. 12 to find out.

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  • Next up: Boot Camp Spotlight: 3 Questions with Jim Gilmore

    Boot Camp Spotlight: 3 Questions with Jim Gilmore

    We sat down recently with Jim Gilmore, who will lead our Sept. 20 Business Growth Boot Camp, to talk about how the simple act of improving your observational skills can help your business grow.

    Inspired by Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats method, Jim Gilmore has created a unique and useful tool to help enhance your observational skills. His “Six Looking Glasses” provide a set of skills to master the way we look at the world around us.

    These include the ability to:

    • Survey and scan to see the big picture;
    • compare and contrast to overcome personal bias;
    • spot significance in any scene;
    • scrutinize numerous details;
    • uncover potential opportunities; and
    • see what’s in the mind’s eye

    In advance of Gilmore’s upcoming Business Growth Boot Camp session on Sept. 20 (Looking with Fresh New Eyes—A How-to Workshop to Improve Your Observational Skills), we sat down with Gilmore to learn a little more about this process and how the simple act of awareness can contribute to business growth.  

    RELATED: Register for Gilmore’s Business Growth Boot Camp

    1. What’s one thing attendees of the Boot Camp will walk away with, and how can they apply that lesson to their business?

    All who attend will learn to use a new tool, called the Six Looking Glasses. It represents a simple, practical method for anyone to improve their observational skills. Why is this important?  It's important because all innovation begins with observation.  Participants in the Boot Camp will come away equipped as better observers—better able to identify key customer behaviors (and their unfulfilled needs), recognize operational issues (to avoid them becoming pitfalls), detect industry trends (before others see the same), and perceive broader cultural shifts (that may bear against any business strategy).

    2. A lot of business owners, small business owners in particular, have so much on their plate day to day that they might feel it’s difficult to just stop and observe. What’s the best way to manage the myriad of daily tasks you have to manage and take a higher level observational view of what’s going on around the business?

    Actually, the Six Looking Glasses should prove a time-saver. Many executives and managers find themselves struggling to keep ahead of the daily grind precisely because they have not stopped to simply see the time-saving opportunities that exist to be seen—if only one looked!  Stephen Covey once urged managers to focus on the important over the urgent. I'd augment that by saying observation is the most important means by which to minimize the seemingly urgent, so one's organization can focus solely on what truly drives success.

    3. Once you have taken the time to stop and look around, then what? How do you take the observational data you’ve taken in and translate that to something tangible you can apply to your business?

    That is indeed the issue, now isn't it? I propose this simple process: Look, Think, Act. To take any action without first thinking is foolish. And to do any thinking without first looking is frivolous. It all begins with looking. But better observation does not automatically translate into wise action. One has to still do rigorous managerial thinking. But sometimes one says to oneself, "Why didn't I think of that?"—too often in reaction to a competitor's action or some customer shift in behavior. And the answer: Because you were not looking!

    If you would like to learn more and register for the Observational Skills Bootcamp, click here.

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  • Next up: Boss Like a Girl

    Boss Like a Girl

    Some of Cleveland’s most passionate and committed females running local businesses took part in a recent panel to share their experiences. Here is a recap of the inspirational stories and sound advice they shared.

    At a recent Greater Cleveland Partnership event, attendees had the opportunity to hear from three pioneering women who have collaboration and community in their blood. The women on this special Girl Boss panel are all female entrepreneurs who made it their business to promote and support the personal and professional development of women.

    Shibani Faehnle is the founder of Bombay Taxi Boutique, Maria LeFebre is the founder of Your Local Girl Gang, and Stephanie Sheldon runs the Indie Foundry and the Cleveland Flea. They all shared with the audience their journeys that brought them to their current roles, what inspired them to start their businesses and how their work is impacting Northeast Ohio.

    What got them started

    One thing that was clear among all the panelists is that they started their businesses as a result of a desire and need they felt within themselves. Whether it was because they wanted to help the city of Cleveland feel better about itself, or the desire to collaborate with women and hear about their experiences, or out of the sheer desire to support local businesses and connect customers to business owners—each of the panelists started down this path because of a passion within themselves and a genuine love of connecting with others.

    Why collaboration is crucial

    When asked how collaboration, networking and building partnerships across the region helps them grow their business and accomplish their mission, each of the women indicated that they are not native to Cleveland. Because, in part, of their unfamiliarity with the city, they took it upon themselves to form their own communities and find collaboration opportunities.

    In terms of networking, it was mentioned that these types of interactions don’t have to be small talk or a surface exchange of information. Digging deeper and creating meaningful relationships with people is what will end up driving you personally and professionally. Keeping in mind that Cleveland is a small town, and that you will most likely see people you are networking with again, will help you make your interactions more meaningful.

    The panelists even mentioned a trend toward anti-networking—where instead of the stuffy, forced interactions of the past, people are now more interested in events that are fun and feature an engaging activity or vendors. They appreciate any opportunity to meet many people at once and connect with people on a real level.

    What determines success?

    The Girl Boss panel agreed that success is not always measured by the amount of money earned. One idea of success is just simply having people show up at an event you planned. Since it is Cleveland, maybe it’s raining or snowing—but if people still showed up and they have smiles on their faces, then you know it was a success.

    Sometimes the concept of success varies from day to day, and can include the following areas of evaluation.

    • Are you able to ultimately leave your job to pursue this passion?
    • Are you spreading your concept, group, etc into different cities or states?
    • Have you seen people out in public wearing one of your products, talking about your services or recommending your company to others?
    • Have you seen someone directly benefit as a result of the work that you do?
    • Do you just simply have a general good feeling about your impact or a true sense of accomplishment?

    Some parting advice

    Here are some takeaways from the Girl Boss panel that you can apply to your business, your collaborations and your sense of accomplishment.

    Takeaway No. 1: Support is no small thing. Sometimes all people need is a little support to give them the confidence or push that they need to pursue a passion. Connecting with a group or collaborating with others is a great way to find that support.

    Takeaway No. 2: It’s not going to be easy. If it was easy, we’d all be doing what we wanted to do without much effort. But that’s not how businesses work.

    Takeaway No. 3: Mindset is important. The biggest impact you can have on yourself is to believe in yourself. It doesn’t help you to have someone do something for you. You need to change your mindset to believe that you can do it yourself. At the end of the day, if you don’t own your own success then you won’t keep succeeding.

    Takeaway No. 4: Plan it out. Are you planning for the future? Make a list of your goals, writing them down. Reinforce your goals within yourself on a regular basis.

    Each year, COSE and the Greater Cleveland Partnership host hundreds of events focused on helping small businesses get the resources they need to succeed and grow. Check out a list of upcoming events that could benefit your company by clicking here.

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  • Next up: Build a Billion-Dollar Business in 5 Steps

    Build a Billion-Dollar Business in 5 Steps

    Throughout 2018, Mind Your Business will be reviewing the highlights of the 2017 BizConCLE event hosted by COSE and the Greater Cleveland Partnership. Today’s article focuses on the lessons small business owners can learn from the startup success of CoverMyMeds. Read the other stories in this series here.

    In January 2017, CoverMyMeds achieved what every startup company dreams of: a billion-dollar valuation and sale to a major corporation.

    Funny thing is, Ted Frank, the CFO of CoverMyMeds, never really thought of the company as a startup. Rather, he and his partners viewed operated the business as a company with a long-term future instead of as a startup simply trying to survive from one round of funding to the next.

    Operating with a sound, long-term business plan in mind was just one of the lessons that Frank, one of the keynote speakers at the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s and COSE’s BizConCLE event, imparted to those in attendance. In fact, Frank laid out a five-step plan that small- and mid-sized businesses can easily adopt that could put them on the same unicorn trajectory that CoverMyMeds has been on.

    Step one: Focus on your distribution channel

    Frank said the reason most startups fail is because their distribution channel is either misaligned or not economically viable. How do you make it viable? You enlist the help of your customers to help you grow.

    It’s critical that businesses understand that their success is linked to that of the business and that your value to them increases as the business scales.

    Step two: Your operating model is not an afterthought

    Too many businesses believe they can bolt on their operating plan after they get funding. That’s a precarious line of thinking, particularly in the Midwest where private equity can be difficult to source and you can’t raise $300 million to build a company as some Silicon Valley firms might be able to do.

    Instead, businesses in this region need to rely on great economics to succeed. And you get to those great economics by being innovative in the way you approach your business and distribution model. When you have these great economics, Frank said, it makes it easier to win because revenue becomes more of a focus instead of costs. And it’s not that profit is unimportant. It’s just that profit is baked into the business model.

    Step three: Win through people

    At the end of the day, the success or failure of a business is linked to the people who comprise the business. Give these employees something to be excited about, Frank said. The focus on revenue, as described above, can create opportunities for rapid growth where staffers can find opportunities to work in emerging areas of the organization.

    Senior leadership should also target specific “star” employees and “connectors” in the marketplace you’re engaged in. These people will help you recruit other Rockstar employees.

    And create an environment that is not restrictive (think one-page explanations of company policies) and encourages instead of punishes risk-taking. You want your employees to feel like they’re a part of something and these are just two ways of accomplishing that, he said.

    Step four: Don’t rely on fundraising

    One of Frank’s favorite sayings is that business owners should be focused on building a company, not a startup. As such, the business has to be one that is sustainable and does not live or die based on the availability of angel investors. If you’re focused on just surviving from the “A” round of capital raising, to the “B” round to the “C” round, etc., you’re not focused on building a company.

    Put another way, if you’re raising money because you need money, you’ve already lost. Don’t worry about your exit strategy. Worry about how your business is going to help people—while also making some money along the way.

    Step five: Set big goals

    Don’t be afraid of setting big, hairy, audacious goals. Again, if your company is all about offense, you’re going to attract valuable heavy-hitter job candidates who want to help you do amazing things.

    BizConCLE is just one example of the many educational events hosted by the Greater Cleveland Partnership and COSE each year to help give the business community the knowledge they need to make their business a success. Check out this list of upcoming events to find one that’s right for you.
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