Minimum Viable Development For Founding CEOs

Businessman yelling with his hands on face against painted blue wooden planksWhile cruising north on Interstate 71, my mobile phone rang. I glanced at my bluetooth enabled car dashboard to see that it was a friend of mine who is the CEO of a fast-growing tech company.

I clicked the hands-free “talk” button and before I could say hello he started frantically talking.

“Todd, I don’t know what to do. I can’t work any harder. I can’t work longer hours. I can’t keep working every weekend…” He went on for about two exits as I continued my drive without saying a word. This was uncharacteristic behavior for John (name changed). He is normally a pretty level-headed Founding CEO who always seems to have everything under control.

I asked, “What’s your annual revenue, John?”

“About one million dollars, and climbing,” he replied with hesitation in his voice.

And, that’s when it struck me that he was experiencing what I call the “one million dollar overwhelm.”

I know John. He has four team members. He and his team work out of his home basement. He gets lots of great media attention. He doesn’t need outside capital because he is customer-funded. A growing percentage of his revenue is even recurring revenue from long term contracts. By all accounts, he is very successful and growing. Well, at least his company is growing…is he growing?

Origins of the “From Founder To CEO” platform

About two years ago I received a different type of communication via email from the Founder & CEO of a growing Midwest company. Julia (name changed) contacted me because she once worked at a Fortune 50 company, left to launch her startup, and now wanted to grow as a leader simultaneous to growing her company.

Honestly, I was a bit taken back. Normally I receive calls from people like John, reacting to the problems of growth, rather than proactively preparing for it.

Julia was considered a highly successful leader at the big Fortune 50 company where she started her career. She even participated in her company’s leadership development program for high potential leaders like her.

She was looking to hire an executive coach because she had a vague idea that the skills that got her to this point in her journey from Founder to CEO, may not be enough to lead the one billion dollar company she aspired to build.

Without reading the book, Julia knew the central thesis of Marshall Goldsmith’s popular book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful.”

As your company grows, YOU must grow too. The skills it takes to be a Founder are not the same skills it takes to be the CEO of a 10 person startup. The skills it takes to be the CEO of a 10 person startup, are NOT the same skills it takes to be the CEO of a 25, 100, or even 400 person company.

At this moment in our history, you can’t download leadership knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience into your brain and upgrade to the next level as your company reaches new milestones. It takes time, effort, focus, and resources.

Bersin and Associates (A Deloitte Company) commissioned a study in 2012 – Leadership Development Factbook 2012: Benchmarks and Trends in U.S. Leadership Development. Bersin found that American companies collectively spend $14 billion dollars on annual leadership development initiatives. That is a staggering number.

As a Founding CEO, what are you spending to level up your leadership development?

The challenge is that Founding CEOs like you don’t have the time or resources to enhance your leadership capacity at the same speed as the well established companies in the Bersin study.

That’s why I created “From Founder To CEO.” Right now it’s a podcast and blog that allows you to learn from other successful Founding CEOs as they share their journey from Founder to CEO. We are quickly working on developing additional resources that are tailored to the specific needs of Founding CEOs like you. You know you need to grow as a leader, but your time and resources are limited.

Sure, it would be great to go back to school and get a masters degree in management or organizational leadership. It would be awesome to have time to read a book a week, be mentored by Richard Branson, or attend fancy leadership conferences. Back on planet reality, you have a business to build.

So, what can you do, right now, to prevent the one million dollar overwhelm (in my experience, a common benchmark of the CEO skill and expectation gap) and proactively level up your leadership development like Julia?

Learn While Your Earn

Here are some low-cost, low-time, and big impact minimum viable leadership development actions you can take right now.

1. Debrief Your Week: When I pick my kids up from school each day, I always ask them to share one thing they learned. They usually take a few minutes to formulate an answer. It’s normally the first time they have had a time to process their day.

The same is true for you. Unless you are intentional about learning from your experiences, they wash over you with little impact on your development. A fellow coach friend, Perry Carrison, is quoted as saying, “Life is a debrief-able event.” Ask yourself this one question…”what is the leadership lesson I learned this week.” Find a safe person to share your answer with and how you will apply that learning in the coming weeks.

2. Teach A Class: The Latin phrase “Docendo discimus” (“by teaching, we learn”), is a reminder of the power inherent in teaching others things we need to learn, or reinforce, in ourselves. Participate in your company on-boarding process by teaching a piece of it yourself. Maybe you should try teaching a management or leadership skill you are currently working on.

3. Complete An Assessment: There are some powerful assessment tools that come with some baked-in leadership and management models. You might be surprised by some of the insights you can get about yourself. The hardest part is deciding which one to use. I’m partial to The Birkman Method because it measures your behaviors and motivators in easily understood language.

You may even invest in a 360-degree leadership feedback tool. This is when people around you rate you on pre-determined management and leadership dimensions. I use Benchmarks from The Center for Creative Leadership. But, there are many others.

4. Join A CEO Roundtable: There are many names for these types of groups. Sometimes they are called CEO Masterminds, CEO Peer Groups, and even Accountability Partners. The idea is you regularly meet with other CEOs who are committed to confidentiality, growth, and mutual success. Having personally participated in these groups and having facilitated these groups, I know they can have a positive impact on your success, satisfaction, and fulfillment  as a CEO.

5. Write Once A Week: Nothing cleanses the mind and clarifies your thoughts quite like writing. I find it difficult just to write unless it is for a specific purpose like this blog. You may find that a reality for you, too. So, write something for your team once a week or at least once a month. Focus your writing on your observations and lessons learned and share with your team. Too risky? Try me. It just might foster the type of transparent interactions you need to have with your team members.


As you think about these five action learning tips, let me know what you need. As we build resources to help you grow faster than your startup, we want to target the leadership obstacles, challenges, and skills that you need the most help with. Send me an email anytime or even call me at 513-339-1007.

But, I warn you. I may not be able to answer while I drive up Interstate 71 like I do for my friend, John. 🙂

Wishing you much success.

2 thoughts on “Minimum Viable Development For Founding CEOs

  1. Thanks for fixing the link in your newsletter! I found your podcast a few weeks ago and I only have 2 left to listen to and I will be caught up!

    I found you by googling in the itunes podcast app. 🙂

    This blog podcast is JUST what I need in my business right now. I have learned SO much for your and your guests.

    I am getting ready to reach out to 3 of your guests and see how we can work together going forward.

    Congratulations on passing the 25,000 download mark and providing such actionable and needed in formation for those of use making the transition from founder to CEO.


    1. Hi Lisa. Thanks so much for sharing your feedback. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that the podcast and FFTC platform is helping you on your journey From Founder TO CEO. If I can help in any other way, please ask. All the best to you.

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