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Why do some CEOs win and others don’t?  What is it that enables founders like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos to stay the course whilst others fall by the wayside?  It’s much to do with your critical hires as your business scales.

Treating your start-up like a ‘small big business’ is a big mistake.  They’re not. They’re a start-up.  Don’t adopt big company practices to fix the wrinkles. You’ve got a good strategy, culture and direction.  You don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Strategic hires are crucial in executing a CEO’s business strategy, ensuring the company’s growth and operational efficiency.

This was reemphasised to me when I interviewed Steve Blank on the Mind Your F**king Business podcast.  Author of the brilliant ‘4 Steps To The Epiphany’ and founder of the Lean Start-up movement, Steve is the ultimate serial entrepreneur with no less than eight tech start-ups under his belt. We talked about the nature and personality of the founders. “They’re closer to artists than any other profession,’ he said. ‘And they’re not accountants.  Accountants don’t create disruptive start-ups.” Chief executive officers like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos exemplify the chief executive officer’s role in steering their companies towards success, showcasing the impact of visionary leadership on a company’s trajectory.

As businesses grow, it’s common to encounter the challenge of ‘solving the founder problem’. While founders have great energy, amazing ideas and a clear vision, they can’t organise anything. They’re not into processes, and they find it difficult to hold their team to account.

So what happens? They think, what would a big company do? I know – we’ll hire a new C-suite Executive to run operations.  I’m here to tell you there’s a much less radical solution with far fewer risks.  Hire a Chief of Staff instead. Let me tell you why.

1. Chief Executive Officer retains control of culture and business strategy

As founder and CEO, you want to remain in control. If you hire someone into a COO role, they’re likely to have much greater influence over strategy and culture, contrasting significantly with the Chief of Staff’s role. The chief operating officer (COO) is often seen as the second-in-command, responsible for day-to-day operations and business strategies, directly impacting the company’s culture and operational efficiency. This contrasts with the Chief of Staff, who acts more as a strategic advisor and extension of the CEO, focusing on broader organizational goals without the same level of influence over daily operations. Learn from Jeff Bezos. He hired a COO from Black and Decker, Joe Galli. But they didn’t see eye to eye. Amazon was going through a turbulent time in the late 1990s. It had come under fire from Wall Street critics for its continuing losses, heavy debt load and dwindling cash reserves. Galli came in with ideas about strategy that didn’t align with Bezos. So they parted company, and Bezos hired a Chief of Staff. Like a turbo-charged Executive PA, their role was supporting Bezos to be the best leader for Amazon. And look what unfolded for that business.

A Chief of Staff can be your right-hand, strategic thought partner. They use your authority to manage projects, create strategic plans and oversee operational aspects such as finance, human resources, and risk management. Crucially, they can act as your eyes and ears in the business and focus solely on your success. In this dynamic, the collaboration between the chief operating officer (COO) and the chief financial officer (CFO) is also crucial, as they work together to influence company strategy and operations, ensuring financial and operational decisions align with the company’s long-term goals.

When recruiting, I advise looking for someone who’s done this before and taken a business like yours to the next level. Don’t get fixated on it being a job for life. If you’re at a £10 million turnover and want to get to £100 million, find the person who will get you to £20 million. Hire for the problem you’ve got right now. Be really specific. Use a job scorecard to define the problem statement and the three to five metrics you need to fix a year from now.

    2. Chief Operating Officer will bring missing skills in operations management

    A good Chief of Staff will complement you as CEO, bringing skills that might be lacking on your Executive Team. Patrick Lencioni’s new tool, ‘Working Genius, ’ is great for this – we’ve been using it recently to profile client CEOs.  Consistently, their results have come back with high scores for ‘Invention and Discernment’.  No surprise there. Think of the word ‘entrepreneur’, and instantly, the words ‘passion’, ‘ideas’ and ‘creativity’ spring to mind.  But ‘Tenacity’ and ‘Enablement’ are less common. A Chief of Staff with a background in business administration can bring valuable insights and skills to the executive team, enhancing strategic decision-making and operational efficiency.

    This is why businesses started by multiple founders often get to higher revenue levels before they hit a crisis. Particularly if these founders have a complementary mix of skills that overlap.  But some of our clients’ Executive Teams have loads of ‘Invention and Discernment’ with nothing to balance them.  They spend too much time discussing ideas but don’t make any progress. Expertise in sales management is a critical skill set that a Chief of Staff might bring to complement the CEO’s vision and creativity, ensuring that innovative ideas are effectively translated into marketable strategies and tangible sales results.

    So, another way to think about fixing the founder problem is deliberately going out to find a Chief of Staff who will play to your weaknesses. If you need someone who’ll get your ideas over the finishing line, read your emails and draft your communications, then recruit specifically for these skills.  Don’t hire someone who could be a potential rival.

    3. Chief of Staff has more agility in daily business operations

    One of the things that can go wrong when smaller companies hire COOs is choosing someone without the CEO’s passion or empathy for customers. Yes, they might have successfully brought order to the chaos of a bigger company, but do you really want their approach in your business? Managing day-to-day operations is crucial, and a Chief of Staff excels in this area, allowing the CEO to concentrate on broader strategic goals and long-term business challenges.

    If you’re not careful, your new COO will drive the culture of your business away from where you want it to be. It’s often due to the size of the company. Some people can create a process from scratch, and others can manage it. In larger companies, the process already exists. So, will the person you’re hiring turn up with a playbook they didn’t write but just ran for someone else? Instead, you need someone agile and creative to evolve your processes rather than implement something that worked elsewhere.

    To drive new sources of revenue and expansion into existing clients, your business needs to keep iterating and innovating. I was with a client recently who’s just launched a new product. Their Head of Ops told me they hadn’t finished it yet – installing was taking longer than anticipated. They still had to whiteglove every customer they’d introduced to it. As a result, the product hadn’t been operationalised. The Chief of Staff works closely with the human resources department to ensure that the right talent supports the operational aspects of such innovation, facilitating the rollout of new product lines and enhancing production, research and development, and marketing efforts.

    When businesses launch a new product, they often need to seek product-market fit. And this takes time and agility. A COO from a larger company might come in and stop innovation to get on top of the Ops problem. But instead, really they just needed someone who can make it a bit more manageable. Ultimately, it’s vital to continue driving new sources of revenue and expansion into existing clients. And you won’t do this if you stop innovating.

    It is far better to hire a Chief of Staff and give them muscle around process and accountability. Some of our clients have put their Chief of Staff in charge of MGS (Metronome Growth Systems). This is our preferred strategic planning tool. It drives growth in organisations like nothing else. Your Chief of Staff can run meetings, take notes, follow up actions and hold people accountable for their individual metrics and priorities.

    4. Staff continue to report to the CEO

    This is a big one. Don’t hire a COO and then put them in charge of all your staff. You might recognise that you’re not great at managing people and holding them accountable, but this is a bad solution. It will mean all the good stuff in your head gets stuck, and it ceases to percolate through your business.

    We see this time and time again.  The org chart changes so that the only direct report of the CEO is the COO.  This can cause a huge culture clash.  Previously, staff enjoyed access to the CEO, but they’ve now lost it.  Instead, they’re working for someone different who brings a whole new way of doing things.  A better structure would be to bring in a Chief of Staff who provides a buffer, but the reporting lines stay the same.  In the British military, they’re called an ADC (Aide de Camp) and work behind the scenes to solve problems, mediate disputes and resolve issues before they’re brought to the leader.   Ultimately, their role is to keep their boss out of trouble – so why on earth wouldn’t you hire one? A Chief of Staff also plays a crucial role in maintaining clear communication lines among the C-suite executives, such as the Chief Operating Officer (COO), Chief Finance Officer, and Chief Technology Officer, and across the organization, unlike the hierarchical barriers that might arise with additional C-suite roles.

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    Written by business coach and CEO mentor Dominic Monkhouse. Read his new book, Mind Your F**king Business here.

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