The battle for all CEOs for scale-ups: Do you work with revenue or are you a manager?

“Am I still worth anything?”

Recently, I worked with a management team in a scaleup that was in a roller-coaster phase. As a preamble, I asked: “How are you?” The CEO made an immediate move. By last year, the number of roles he had had been greatly reduced. With amazing employees who had taken over roles from him. But he himself felt restless and wondered aloud if he was still worth anything. The biggest problem was figuring out what he really wanted. And he found that quite difficult. He thought deeply and sighed: “Being a handyman is addictive. Fortunately, the team helped him make a good choice of two new roles: CEO and culture watchdog.

The above story is recognizable to many CEO’s of scale-ups. They also struggle with their role interpretation after the start-up phase. For example, CEO A wants to work more with his company and CEO B wants to be more valuable in his company. In this article, we want to help you as a CEO of a scale-up find a good balance between these two choices.

After the start-up phase, every CEO struggles with their role.

With around 10 employees, you have an (in)formal management team. You probably have a commercial right-hand man and an operational right-hand man. With around 25-30 employees, the situation is already different: Then you have a well-functioning management team, probably with: sales – marketing – HR – finance – operations. If you grow even more, you’ll even have a mid-level team leader, each managing a small team of 5-12 people.

The growth of all leaders around the CEO happens organically. It doesn’t happen by itself, but it’s also not hard to see when you need which role in your growth phase. Here, you hear of few challenges other than finding the right employees. Not in the design of their role.

But the role where design and content pose the biggest challenge is the role of the CEO. How does it change in the ideal scale-up world?

What is the CEO’s value to the company in this ideal world?

And what is his value in the leadership team?

We believe the discussion shouldn’t be about the content of the CEO role, but more about the balance between ‘making money for your company’ and ‘being the leader of your company’.

In this article, we want to help you as the CEO of a scale-up find that balance.

The battle of the CEO When do you work in revenue and when are you a manager?

In our growth programs, we rarely see this: CEO’s just out of the start-up phase find the perfect balance between working in and with the business.

What we (always?) see is that the balance is skewed towards one of the following situations.

Situation 1: The CEO wants to be too much of a scale-up entrepreneur. He removes himself from all sales activities and is no longer involved in project execution. In other words, he has become a leader and is primarily concerned with strategic choices, (personal) branding, keeping an eye on the numbers and managing his leadership team.

Situation 2: The CEO wants to be too much of a start-up entrepreneur. He can’t let go of his old mindset: He wants to be involved in too many sales processes, he is still the (micro)manager of execution and wants to launch a new product every six months (or change current products).

Both situations are not ideal when you’re in a growth phase with 10-50 employees. If the company grows further, situation 1 is sustainable, but situation 2 is definitely not any more.

If you want a balance between situations 1 and 2, you need to consciously choose what your ideal CEO balance is. When you do, you’re not only paying attention to what’s good for you, but more importantly: What’s good for my business now and in the future?

Tip 1: Determine your highest value.

This concept comes from the book ‘Essentialism’, where author McKeown talks about your ‘Highest Point of Contribution’ – and that you should always look after it.

As CEO, you need to figure out what your superpower is that you’ve used to bring the company this far. Also, find out what it is that still gives you the most energy right now. For many CEO’s, it often lies within one of the following sub-areas: product development, sales, marketing.

Tip 2: Determine your minimum and maximum added value in this.

In some scale-ups, the CEO still has ultimate responsibility for a specific sub-area. For example, they are CEO AND commercial directors. We recommend this up to a certain organization size: After that, you can no longer perform a dual role. Then you need to choose what your minimum and maximum value is within this sub-range. At the end of the day, your business needs an engaged leader.

Do you really not want to let go of this subspace? If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to look for a new CEO so you can (for example) continue in the role of commercial director.

Tip 3: Protect your value.

Do you stay involved in specific sales processes and/or specific execution projects? So cherish this value or give it up. Let everyone in the company know that you work in your business at predetermined times of the day so you don’t get distracted by ad hoc issues and firefighting.

Tip 4: Select your endpoint.

We discussed it in tip 2 and will come back to it here: At some point in your scale-up growth, there comes a crucial decision-making moment where you need to be a committed CEO of your scale-up. This means: No distractions from the work of your business. For many CEO’s, this is where they drop out and get bought out. The fun is over for them when they can no longer sell or when they can no longer complete projects.

Therefore, you need to decide in advance what and when your end point will be. Find an experienced executive coach for this, who will help you (using personality analysis) to find your ideal role. Chances are you’ll be deeply unhappy in a dedicated CEO role.

Ps. We see this in our customers: The companies that grow most successfully from 7 to 75 million Danish kroner in revenue have CEO’s who are still billable until a late (organizational) age. By this we don’t mean traditional hourly billing, but rather: Earning money by also working in the company every week. This could be being involved in the sale of major projects or being involved in the execution of major projects. In short, this CEO continues to work on his company’s revenue growth. And is often still the driving force behind this. It also works extremely well in terms of performance culture – because it also sets the tone for the rest of the company (we need to grow and everyone is working on it).