Fred Wilson wrote an iconic blog post years ago entitled What a CEO does. In it, he outlined three broad themes:
A CEO does only three things. Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.
I wrote a response in a post entitled What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?, in which I added some specificity to those three items and added three key behaviors of successful CEOs. I also added to Fred’s list when I wrote Startup CEO, CEOs have to build and lead a board of directors, CEOs have to manage themselves, and CEOs ultimately have to think about and execute exits.
But recently, as I’ve been coaching a few CEOs, I’ve answered the question differently, because the questions have been a little less about the broad themes and more about how to prioritize — how to know what NOT to do. So in addition to Fred’s wisdom and my other thoughts above, here’s the answer I’m giving CEOs these days:
- First, do what you MUST do. There are some things that are in your job description. Do them first. You have to run your board meeting. You have to pitch investors. You have to write performance reviews for your direct reports.
- Second, do what ONLY YOU can do. There are also some things that, while not in your job description, are things that CEOs and/or founders have special impact when they do. No one can call a team member who just lost a parent or spouse and offer support and sympathy like you can. No one can get on a plane and save a key customer from leaving you like you can. No one can congratulate a sales rep on a key win like you can.
- Third, do what you’re BEST IN CLASS at. Finally, there are things that may be in other people’s job descriptions, but where you’re the stronger executer. I remember reading years ago that Bill Gates, long after he even stopped being CEO of Microsoft and was Chairman, still got involved in some major technical architecture decisions and reviews. Whatever your superpower is, or whatever it was when you were in your pre-CEO jobs, there’s no reason not to jump in and help your team excel at (and ideally train/mentor them) whenever you can.
After that, you can fill in the rest of your time with other tasks. In the world of Covey’s big rocks, this is all the sand. All the other things that come by your desk or inbox that people ask of you. They are the least important. Hopefully this is another helpful lens on how CEOs should spend their time.