Chief executive officer (CEO) is a title held by more than 200,000 people in the United States, but only about 2% of those are CEOs of public companies. Having seen the grass from both the public and private sides, I can assert with confidence that the job of a CEO is not a one-size-fits-all responsibility, and it certainly changes when transitioning from being the CEO of a small, privately held tech company to one that is both global and public. While the job of a CEO stays the same in some ways, it changes drastically in others on the path to going public.
Going Public Is Never A Straight And Narrow Process
Going public is a physically and mentally demanding process that doesn’t have a guaranteed ending. It is a long, slow process of building relationships with bankers, analysts and investors. This process starts as early as two years in advance and continues to get more intense as you get closer to the IPO. From the bake-off to the roadshow to the big day, the experience is both exhilarating and incredibly taxing.
In fact, I’d recommend you talk to others who have taken the journey and do some reading on what the process is like well in advance if you believe that an IPO is in your company’s future. Because as you prepare and focus energy on the process, the onus is still on you to make sure that your business continues to operate and execute — and that’s a pretty tough balance, particularly in the tech industry, where the concept of digital transformation is affecting almost every enterprise company in the world.
Everything Feels Like It’s On Fire, But It Isn’t
When you’re at the top of the proverbial organization chart, whether you are in a small startup or running a Fortune 500, you’re the one who hears about everything that is going wrong, and you end up being pulled in all directions. The number and urgency of these situations will grow as your company does, so learning not to get hung up on things is key to your mental clarity and overall ability to drive success. Your job as the CEO is to help guide your team on what’s mission-critical and what’s not, which is something you will face from day one. The good news is that as your company grows, so does your team, and delegation becomes a much more significant part of the job.
Fortunately, those of us in tech are often advanced users of collaboration and automation solutions, which helps us balance these challenges better than many of our peers from more traditional industries.
Your Reputation Precedes You, So Take Thought Leadership Seriously
Hitting your business goals and metrics is essential to sustained performance, whether an IPO is your objective or not. However, something that great companies do to become real leaders in their markets is establishing their positions as thought leaders, particularly with relevant influencers like tech industry analysts (e.g., Gartner), as well as equity analysts and leading journalists. If nobody else knows how amazing your team is or how great your products are, you’ll be in trouble long before an IPO is a real possibility. The job of the CEO is to champion the company’s culture, vision and execution through every period of growth.
Make Sure You Keep The Team Aligned By Overcommunicating
As you scale the company, particularly as you head toward an IPO and after it’s done, one of the most significant challenges of the leadership team, and the CEO in particular, is to keep everyone rowing in the same direction. All organizations tend to become more complex with scale, and the need to keep everyone aligned, especially when preparing for and executing an IPO, is critical.
My best advice here is to adopt the adage that just about the time you’re sick of saying something is when it’s probably fully getting absorbed across the organization. If core values, refined strategy or new tactics are critical to your success, then force yourself to be disciplined about repeating these vital messages early and often. Again, in the tech industry, where communications tend to be more sophisticated, leveraging tools like video conferencing, collaboration platforms (e.g., Slack) and pervasive mobile devices, this challenge is somewhat easier than in other industries.
Through periods of high growth and an IPO, your job as a CEO might morph into a few different shapes or take some interesting turns. What doesn’t change is your role as leader and shepherd of the strategy and the culture as your company progresses across the various stages of growth, up to and including an IPO and beyond. If this is your journey, I wish you well as you join the 2%.