In my mentorship of emerging and growing entrepreneurs, one of the most common traits I encounter is discomfort in the role of CEO. In the bios I read, and the business cards I receive, I see a variety of titles other than “CEO.” As a small business owner, nothing communicates confidence and leadership to prospective customers, employees, and partners more than your title.
In just three letters, the title communicates self-confidence, leadership, vision, strategy, and credibility.
And yet, so many small business owners struggle with this title. I can remember feeling uncomfortable with the title of CEO when Information Experts was much smaller, and I was much less experienced. I felt that I didn’t deserve to carry the title because I believed I wasn’t accomplishing much – that I had not yet earned the right to be referred to as a CEO. I also felt that because I relied on so many other people to help me move forward, I was misrepresenting myself. And, I was very uncomfortable with the organizational hierarchy that occurs in an organization with a CEO. The very existence of the position automatically creates a reporting structure, and I didn’t want to be separated from everyone else in the company.
Growing into the title of CEO is something that occurs over time for so many of us. Very few of us feel comfortable with the title from Day One. Growing into the role reminds me of how I feel when I take my sons shopping for school clothes in August, just before the start of the school year. You always want to buy things one or two sizes too big, to give the kids something to grow into. Inevitably what happens is that I pick up the sizes that are too big, I hold them up to the kids, and I think to myself, “Wow, those look HUGE!! Those are for BIG kids!! They will NEVER fit into those!!”
But of course, what invariably happens is that by June, those clothes have become too small for them. Not only have they grown into them; they have grown past them.
This is exactly what happens with the role of the CEO. The role should always feel a little bit too big for you. It should always feel like a position that is just a bit out of reach, and something that you will have to work hard to fulfill.
The position of the CEO should always be defined by growth.
Assuming the title of the CEO is essential for many reasons:
- As a small business, you want to use everything you have to your advantage. This includes communicating the accessibility of the company CEO to prospective clients. When you hand out your business card or meet someone at a networking function, you want that person to know they are connecting with a decision maker, and person of authority & influence in your firm. Other more obscure titles such as “Consultant” or “Founder” does not communicate ownership. I attend many customer presentations specifically because I want my customers to know that their requirements have the highest level of visibility and priority in my organization. This is a great competitive advantage, and a wonderful way to level the playing field against larger firms. It provides a touch-point for your potential customers, who are deciding if they should trust you with their business. I can assure you that the large companies are not bringing their CEOs to the table in a customer competition.
- The title of CEO communicates to the world that your business is your passion, your vision, your future. It says to the world, “I created this business. I am the future of this company. Other people may come and go, but I am here to stay.”
- The CEO title also sends a message to employees, whether it is 1, 10, or 100 employees. When employees evaluate a company, they are looking for stability, confidence, and leadership. They want to work for someone who is comfortable in the role of the leader. If you don’t have confidence in your role to lead, you can’t ask others (customers or employees) to have confidence in you.
- There will be times when you need to pull rank outside of the company to protect your firm. Some customers, partners, and vendors will try to take advantage of your contractors or employees, or will not follow up, or will simply be unresponsive. There will be a need for situations to escalate -inside your firm. When a customer is delinquent in paying, or when a vendor fails to deliver, often it will be you – the CEO – that will be the person to get it resolved. It will only be you that has the necessary tenacity to overstep a boundary, escalate in the organization, call someone out for performance, and do what’s required to get a resolution (yes speaking from experience).
Eventually the day will come when you are comfortable in your role as the CEO. But you can’t wait for that day. You have to make it happen. It is not as if one day you will wake up and say to yourself, “OK, today is the day that I am ready to take on the title of CEO.” Instead, the day will come when you won’t even give it a second thought, because it feels right.
Here is an interesting fact – and bear with me… you will see where I am going with this. Did you know that fish only grow as large as their fish tanks? In other words, if you put a fish in a small bowl, that bowl is as big as he gets. If you put him in a large tank, he will grow bigger.
As a business owner, your title is similar. And you don’t want to be a small fish in a little fishbowl. As a business owner, you want to embrace as much growth as possible.
The journey of business-building is all about growth – growth of the business and growth of the individual.
When you start to believe in your power as a CEO, you will be amazed at the things you can accomplish, and the growth you will realize.
And it starts today.