Thursday, January 24, 2008

Are you CEO material?

Today I spoke at Harvard Business School's Entrepreneurship Club. This was a really enjoyable experience because it gave me an opportunity to interact with future entrepreneurs. The club has 450 student members and likes to invite local business leaders to talk about what it takes to start and grow new companies.

I started my talk with the 6 essentials of a startup CEO's life which I called the "6P's":

  • Planning: Never stop doing this. There's no substitute for strategic thinking, but planning goes on everyday starting with outlining “ToDo’s” for the day/week each morning and interspersed into many different disciplines in the company and activities.
  • Proving: Making sure your board, employees, analysts and the press knows about your progress against plan, and company's direction and performance.
  • People: Invest in your employees. Encourage them. Train them. Help them to grow professionally and your company will reap the benefits.
  • Producing: Whether a product or service customer alignment, differentiation and quality are all keys to successful ventures.
  • P&L: Oversee pricing is an important and pivotal business activity that CEOs should be involved with and retain. Another key is driving or monitoring demand generation – depending on the stage of the company. Lastly, a CEO has to be the initiator of cost savings even when a strong CFO is in place.
  • Personal: Don't neglect your family. As it relates to emotional intelligence (so-called "EQ"), learn to recognize patterns to identify problems and communicate solutions.
In my experience, a lot of CEOs neglect the 6th P on this list. Don't do that. As the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.”

There are also some more general Dos and Don'ts that I presented to the club. I learned some of these lessons the hard way, and I hope the aspiring business leaders in the club will learn my mistakes.


  • Do what you are good at and love to do. That might be the CEO job -- but then again it might not!
  • Do hire people who have more expertise in certain areas than you.
  • Do identify your personal weaknesses and address them, and then identify more weaknesses. Rinse and repeat.
  • Do get lots of advice from your board, advisors, coaches, mentors and others, but then make your own decisions.
  • Do come to accept you have to drive the company in order to achieve and overachieve every single day.


  • Don’t letothers' expectations or some “dream job” picture lead you to pursue the CEO job.
  • Don’t operate under the belief that strategy alone is the key to startup success. There are many keys.
  • Don’t assume that there are formulas for exits, challenges, competition, etc. Every situation is unique.
  • Don’t place your interests before the interests of the board, executive management team, your rank-and-file employees and investors.
  • Don’t give up your personal life. There's more to life than work, and being a well-rounded person is key to avoiding burnout. Don't be another supernova in a suit.

I leave you with some words from that sage of the business world, Michael J. Fox, who played the enterprising Alex P. Keaton on the 80s TV sitcom Family Ties: “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God's business.”

Wise advice indeed.


Rye said...

Doug's presentation was top-notch. Every MBA student who aspires to one day start or lead a business should hear it.

Rye Barcott

Sunil said...

It was a treat to have Doug come to campus, but what I found most interesting was his combination of frankness and humility when describing the entrepreneurial experience.

Clearly, chance plays a role in an entrepreneur's success, but Doug's talk convinced me that there are a lot of fundamentals to improve one's chances