Over the past few years, I’ve grown a startup into a successful multi-million-dollar digital agency called Supreme (www.supremeopti.com). I went from a novice freelancer with a good work ethic to leading a team of 30+ individuals.
This meant I had to learn how to effectively lead, manage, and ultimately grow a business as I went. Not only did I have to become an expert in digital marketing, but I also had to become an expert in project management, technical web development, and business operations like accounting, budgets, and taxes, and so much more.
And man, real talk — being a CEO while staying emotionally stable and sane is a trip. I had no idea what I was getting myself into until one day I realized that I was literally supporting the livelihood of 30+ people and their entire families. Not only that, but as a service provider, I was also responsible for delivering happiness and results to our incredible customers.
At Supreme, our mission is to help life science companies effectively communicate revolutionary technologies to their customers through incredible digital experiences. To elaborate, this means that we grow businesses through digital marketing and are personally responsible for the successes (and failures) of the companies we work with. In turn, those companies impact the lives of millions of people around the world through scientific research, drugs, and more.
Talk about high stress.
The pressure of being an effective CEO can be extremely difficult to understand unless you’ve been in those shoes before. Whether your goal is to eventually grow to become a CEO within your organization or to become a founder of a new one, or you are just curious what the CEO of your company has to go through and why you should give them a break sometimes…
Below are some of the most important things I’ve learned about being a Chief Executive Officer.
This is what it comes down to. If your company succeeds, you’re the man (or woman) of the hour. If the company crashes and burns, it’s all on you. Clients unhappy? Employees unhappy? Investors unhappy? It’s your job to fix all of these problems either directly or by making sure you have the right support team in place to share the burden a little bit.
Well, what if you’re unhappy? Deal with it. You’ve got a business to grow. Go download an online therapist app or something.
CEOs do oftentimes make more money than the rest of their team, but not always. When I bootstrapped my business, for the amount of time I put in, I may as well have made minimum wage — or less. We weren’t profitable for the first few years, even though we were generating revenue. If you’re a founder, you’ll be bearing all the risk and may never see a penny back. Even when do you start to generate revenue, you pay yourself last after all of the operational expenses, contractors, and employees get paid. Out of whatever profit is left over, taxes get their cut first which can be easily over 35%.
The employees oftentimes start to see revenue and naturally assume you must be pocketing hundreds of thousand or millions of dollars when really you’re busting your ass to try to get customers to pay their bills and anxious about how you’re going to keep the company afloat if things don’t go as planned.
And if all things do go as planned, you have tremendous amounts of people arguing that CEOs don’t deserve to make tens or hundreds times the salaries of some employees. The truth is that first off, CEOs probably make way less than you think, at least until the company is big time. Secondly, if people really understood what went into being a CEO and the skills plus dedication required, I doubt most people have an issue.
I might be in the unpopular opinion group here by believing CEOs absolutely deserve the money they make, but keep in mind, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon. I was raised by a single mother on welfare, attended public school, and worked my way up from a minimum wage employee at sandwich shops to a busboy to a freelancer, and so on. I understand what it was like to work for other people, and also what it was like to invest a tremendous amount of time and bear risk without any guarantee of reward. Often times founders and CEOs aren’t just collecting a paycheck for their work on a daily basis, but also for the immense amount of work laying the foundation in the first place. Finally, this also doesn’t include that a CEO must constantly be thinking about the future and how to keep their business competitive.
An employee gets to check out as soon as they’re off the clock. As a CEO, you’ll never check out. Even when you sleep, you’ll have dreams about work and then wake up to endless messages and decisions to be made. Sure, you can plan vacations and time to really “check out,” but you also realize that work is your passion, and when you’re on vacation you’re listening to podcasts about work, reading books about the biz, and can’t help but be thinking about opportunities.
Weekends you say?
Weekends are not “weekends.” Weekends are the time of the week that you get a narrow window of distraction-free time to either catch up on last week, prepare for the next week, or work on big-picture strategy. We call this concept “working on the business rather than in the business.”
You constantly have to make trade offs and balance your personal life with situations that impact the well-being of your business that supports the lives of so many people.
Whether your company is filled with happy employees who love their job or is in constant disarray with backstabbing, resentment, and high turnover, it all starts with the CEO. The CEO’s personal values set the bar for virtually everything in the company. If the leader values respect, professionalism, and promptness, then the team and the people hired will mold to that. People who clash with that company culture are let go.
In essence, your company is an extension of who you are as a person. If the company is bad at certain things like process, people, or product, this is often representative of the person in charge — you.
Most founders believe that first you should fundamentally know how to do each role within the company before delegating it out. This was the case for me — in order to build a digital agency, I had to first deeply understand digital marketing, the tech behind web development, how to project manage, how to handle client expectations, and more. This is usually a trial and error process where you learn on the job, and if you’re smart enough you’ll succeed and find ways to delegate to a reliable team.
At some point though, the CEO needs to specialize in simply being a CEO rather than handling the day-to-day details of every single task. This is one of the most difficult transitions and really just depends on the training and competence of leading employees. If you hire the right people, it’s going to make your life so much easier.
If you’re not someone who can make decisions quickly and confidently, then you probably aren’t suited to being a CEO. The amount of decisions that you have to make on a daily basis — some with major repercussions if they are wrong — can be very stressful.
Some decisions are quick and easy, whereas other decisions might dramatically impact the trajectory of your business.
The most challenging thing is that so often your decision might not be the favorable option, even when it’s the right decision. Therefore, you must be able to confidently back up your decisions even when others don’t agree with you. You’ll need to own up to your decisions whether they are ultimately right or wrong.
Finally, if you’re wrong enough times, you’ll begin to lose the trust of your team. It only goes downhill from there. In short, you have to have an amazing intuition to be able to make many good decisions quickly, otherwise you’ll be in a state of paralysis by analysis which is detrimental for you and your business.
Working long hours alone when others are out having fun and socializing is a big part of the job. You have to not only be okay with being alone — you have to embrace it and enjoy it. As a CEO, you have to be passionate enough to actually enjoy being alone rather than feeling lonely. You’ve got to be able to find more fun in solving problems and growing the business than going out sightseeing, hitting happy-hour, or whatever else.
Working long hours is only part of the picture. A bigger piece is that you’ll often feel emotionally alone. The vast majority of people in your life won’t be able to relate to or provide meaningful feedback on your business operational struggles. This means that if you have to vent or get constructive feedback from others, you really don’t have many people who truly understand your problems and can help. Instead, you’ll have to work through a lot of those problems yourself which leads to many people collapsing under the pressure.
Beyond growing the company and all the other tasks that you have to take care of as a CEO, one of the most overlooked time-drains is managing internal relationships. In other words, you have to deal with people problems, a lot.
Human beings can be complex and unpredictable which makes it very difficult to navigate all of the relational aspects of a high-performance team. How do you motivate people? How do you get people to commit, become accountable, pay attention to results, and trust one another to deliver or receive meaningful constructive criticism? This is challenging.
One of the best books on the subject is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Whether you’re a service provider or a product-focused company, your team constitutes one of the most important aspects that lead to success. This means that you’d better be investing significant time in making sure that everyone on the team is on the same page and working together rather than wasting precious time and resources in-fighting or resenting one another.
Navigating these human relationships within the company as well as external relationships with potential business partners, investors, and more means that a CEO has to be highly self-aware and able to tactfully handle challenging situations.
Creativity comes in many forms in many disciplines. However, creativity itself doesn’t belong only to artists, musicians, writers — in fact, it knows no bounds. Creativity presents itself in all sorts of functions and situations. As a CEO, your creativity is constantly employed in problem solving.
There are endless ways to solve most problems, and the more creative you are, the more solutions you can come up with that will make you different from other companies. Out-of-the-box solutions allow you to beat out competition with a more effective business model, product, or service. In fact, you realize that every single obstacle is an opportunity to advance and become better.
Finally, as a CEO, you have to realize that at the end of the day, you’re just a human being. You can’t operate on no sleep, you can’t get more hours out of a day, you can’t neglect all your other responsibilities and commitments in your life for your business. You still have to take care of your body and mind, just like everyone else.
This means you’ll constantly need to find ways to decompress, to manage stress, and to effectively prioritize and plan your time for maximum efficiency.
There you have it. The list I’ve created is only a start that allows you to get a glimpse into what it’s really like to be a CEO. Much of the list might seem challenging and even negative, but I wanted to close on a high note.
Taking ownership and being the leader means you also get to reap tremendous benefits. Sometimes these benefits are financial, but more importantly, once in a while you get to sit back and look at everything you’ve created and give credit to yourself. Building a successful business is one of the most rewarding things in the world and you’ll realize that the best part of it all was in the process. The long days, the long nights, the problems you ran into and overcame, the amazing team and culture you’ve built — you’re responsible for all of that. Not only this, but you also get to see how your product or service is contributing to the lives of so many people outside your organization and playing a role in pushing humankind another step forward.
Work hard. Work smart. Push the limits.