Understanding How the CEO Role Changes as a Company Grows

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Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part interview featuring Alisa Cohn. In the first installment, she talked about the importance of talent assessment and delegation for CEOs whose roles are evolving.

Alisa Cohn coaches CEOs, board members, entrepreneurs, and emerging leaders to help them increase their leadership capacity. Her comprehensive process, developed over years of practice, provides her clients with the insight and perspective they need to step more fully into their evolving roles, scale quickly, and help their organizations grow. Prior to launching her coaching consultancy, she held positions at established and startup companies including The Monitor Group, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tech startups Corporate Alumni and Clairvergent Technology Partners.

Navigating change is one of Cohn’s specialties. “I help executives – especially first-time, founder CEOs – gain the perspective and skills they need to lead their team effectively,” she explains. This can be a particularly challenging task in the high-growth environment of an expansion stage company, but Cohn gives leadership teams critical insights and practical advice that help them tailor their mindset and behavior so they can scale the business efficiently.

Understanding How Information Flow Changes as You Scale

One of the aspects of transition that startup CEOs often have trouble seeing clearly has to do with the dynamics of communication – specifically, their communication. As the company grows and the CEO’s role changes, there are corresponding changes in what information people deliver to the CEO and also in how people respond to information coming from the CEO. “Many CEOs, especially first-time CEOs, but also experienced ones, fail to recognize two things,” Cohn says. “One – they don’t always get the real deal from their teams, and two – when they, as the CEO, make a suggestion, it often comes across as an order.”

The reality is that information flowing from the team to the C-suite tends to be edited for the audience. “The air is thin up there,” Cohn says, “so CEOs don’t always get the full scoop from their people both because their people are busy trying to deliver for them and make them happy, and also because the team wants to make sure they look good in the CEO’s eyes.” To mitigate the problem of omissions or edits, CEOs need to be sure that the right channels and relationships are in place to capture and, if need be, validate incoming information.

On the flip side, CEOs need to realize that once the company has reached a certain size and scale, their leadership role takes on a larger-than-life importance. “Imagine that a team is having a brainstorming session and the CEO makes a suggestion,” Cohn says. “And suddenly there are fifty people springing up to take action on the CEO’s casual suggestion. CEOs may not realize that their entire team is hanging on every word and facial expression, that everything they say is amplified. They have to realize that they’re on a stage.”

While minor lapses in the accuracy of information and subtle shifts in how people interpret the CEO’s comments might not immediately seem a great concern, they can lead to more substantial misalignment and misunderstandings if left unchecked. “There’s nothing malicious going on either way,” Cohn says. “But by virtue of their role and their power, CEOs need to be very intentional and mindful about how they are coming across. This is especially true for founder CEOs.”

Navigating the Change with Intention and Mindfulness

Being up on the proverbial stage is not all about having people’s attention and respect. It’s also about being scrutinized. “A CEO might be innocently walking around the office, just thinking,” says Cohn. “But the team might interpret that behavior as an indication that the CEO is upset about something.” Cohn has three tips to help CEOs get into a mindset that will help reduce the chance for misinterpretation:

Be Your Role

First, she encourages CEOs to recognize that whenever they are in the workplace, they need to fully inhabit their role. “You can no longer think of yourself as ‘Chris,’” she explains. “You need to think of yourself as the best CEO.” This means being really clear about what it means to be the CEO. “You need to know what your job is,” Cohn says. “Your job is not to vent or punish or criticize (even when that’s what you feel like doing). Your job is to help the whole team win.”

Know Your Triggers

Second, Cohn says CEOs need to be able to recognize the trigger moments that threaten to send them flying off the handle. “Tune into yourself,” she suggests. “It’s helpful to really feel them in your body, to understand what it feels like when you’re experiencing a lot of pressure and are about to go crazy on someone, vent at somebody, or lose your patience.” Sometimes, the solution is really simple. Cohn worked with one CFO who developed a reputation for being very difficult and explosive between 11:00 and 12:30. Turned out he was just hungry. He started having a mid-morning snack, which eliminated the trigger point, and everyone was much happier. In another case, the culprit behind an executive’s short fuse was her lack of sleep. “Sometimes a snack or a nap can be a secret weapon,” says Cohn.

Find Your Balance

Finally, CEOs need to learn to balance speaking plainly with taking responsibility. “Being self-aware and avoiding triggers doesn’t mean you don’t get to say your truth,” Cohn explains. “People are going to let you down. They are going to make mistakes, and you’re going to have to speak up. On the other hand, sometimes the situation is your fault because you didn’t provide enough context or you assigned the same task to four people or you didn’t set clear expectations. In those cases, you need to recognize your role in the problem and take responsibility.”

Cohn recounts a situation in which a head of product shared sensitive information with her direct reports before making a difficult announcement to the rest of the team. Her intention was to garner her direct reports’ support for the larger meeting, but because she wasn’t clear about that expectation, two of her direct reports were the most negative participants in the meeting. After that experience, the head of product wrote a manifesto in which she clearly defined the expectations she had for her leadership team. When she presented this document, she owned her role in the previous situation and was able to then lead a rich and productive conversation about mutual expectations within the team. “Her approach was direct,” says Cohn. “You know where you stand with someone like that.”

Working through Difficult Communication and Relationship Issues

Sometimes, Cohn’s engagements with her clients are more about resolving communication and relationship issues than they are about developing specific skills or talents. In one case, she was brought in by the board of directors serving a small company. Her assignment was to work with a three-person leadership team that was rife with bad blood and a history of plotting, pointing fingers, and the endless machinations of company politics. “I’ve never seen less trust,” Cohn recalls. “The only silver lining was that the conflict was very clear and vocal, so everyone knew where they stood.”

Cohn’s first step was to acknowledge to herself and the board that, based on her initial assessment of the situation, there might not be a solution that would help these three work together effectively. “Coaching is not about how great the coach is,” she explains. “It’s about having people who are willing to come to the table, really see their own behavior, and resolve to transform. Change is about willingness as much as it is about ability.”

With that hurdle behind her, Cohn began to work on gaining the trust of the three leaders individually, “If you think about it from a brain chemistry point of view, they may not trust each other, but if they trust me, at least you’ve inserted trust into the environment. That gives us a place to start.” Cohn earned the leaders’ trust by giving them the opportunity to tell their stories, to be heard and validated. Through this process, she learned that each of the three had had a very difficult time. From that point, she was able to start bringing them together to imagine what it would be like to work together to build a successful company instead of focusing all their energy on political agendas and maneuverings.

Once they had established a common vision, she helped them learn how to communicate with each other. “Throughout their relationship, they had chronically and almost willfully misunderstood each other and then been easily offended,” Cohn says. “We learned to have candid and respectful straight talk with each other.”

While the eighteen-month engagement didn’t transform the team into an example of “leadership nirvana,” Cohn was able to get them back on track so they were stable enough to build the company. “I’m a very analytical person and not so ‘touchy-feely,’” Cohn says, “but what came up for me with that team was the healing power of listening and the notion that even when people are exhibiting their worst behavior, they actually want something better. They just don’t know how to get there. My role in cases like these is to find the point of entry for people to make a positive change.”