From Founding to Scaling: How CEOs Must Develop Their Leadership

David Baker

Early in my career, when Think Shift (called Mars Hill in those days) was still considered a fledgling business I was a hands-on leader. In a start-up environment, employees often reach beyond their job titles to take on roles that need filling, and that didn't stop with me. I was founder, CEO, salesman, account manager — whatever kept the company running smoothly. I knew every one of my employees and was completely enmeshed in the day-to-day, because at the time, that’s what we needed.

As the years went on, Mars Hill became Think Shift. We underwent two mergers, grew our employee roster to more than 70 people and gained a global network of clients. Today, I can still tell you the names of every single Think Shifter and am proud to sit at a desk in the open office alongside my employees. But I’m transitioning into a new type of leadership. I mostly wear one hat (the CEO), and I’m no longer enmeshed in the day-to-day: Whether I’m in the office or a meeting with a potential client in another country, the office runs smooth as ever.

If you’ve built your company from the ground up, chances are, this story sounds familiar: at some point, you had to let go of some of your control and learn to lead your company in a more hands-off way. At Think Shift, we refer to this dichotomy as being a CEO with or without sight because it’s like learning to fly an aircraft: at first, you fly small planes by sight. But as you gain experience, you can fly bigger aircrafts in low visibility because you’ve learned to fly not by sight, but by instrument.

While flying by sight works when your company is small, the techniques you rely on as a start-up simply aren’t scalable as your company grows larger.

As your company grows, you’re no longer in the trenches with your people, growing the business and managing your team. Instead, you’re often working directly with the managers, with a focus on growing the people who are growing your business. That means using your energy to look at data, drive results and create an environment where they can thrive — one ruled by transparency and trust, where your people are clear on their responsibilities, have the authority to make decisions, and know you’re available to coach and teach when the need arises. So just as the pilot learns to trust his instruments to fly the plane, so you, the CEO, must learn to trust your team to help you successfully navigate your business.

While I’m still learning to fully let go of the reins and run my company "without sight,” I have found that creating a culture based on trust is an essential part of the journey.

Here are 3 ways to create that trust:

  1. Be clear on roles and responsibilities. When you’re a CEO with sight, it’s easy for clarity to fall to the wayside. Small companies, especially start-ups, are rife with employees who take on roles beyond their job description. And being so involved in the day-to-day, it’s easy for you to change the responsibilities of others and direct them in-the-moment. But as your company grows, this becomes less and less practical. As a CEO without sight, make sure responsibilities and expectations are clearly communicated and accepted, then step back and give your team the freedom and authority to do their jobs. This will give them the breathing room they need to flourish.
  2. Empower your employees. Part of creating an environment where trust is possible is taking a leap of faith and putting trust in your employees. The most challenging — albeit crucial — way to practice this is through empowerment. That is, giving your people the authority to make decisions, then supporting their decision even if their stance runs counter to your own belief. In doing so, you show your coworkers that you trust their skills and expertise to do their jobs right, and act as a coach that helps drive better decision-making. This helps foster a sense of ownership among your people, which can encourage them to give that extra 110% of discretionary effort. A true test of whether you truly empower your employees is asking yourself one question: How often do my employees’ decisions go against my opinion?
  3. Create a culture of accountability. Many leaders, myself included, struggle with holding our employees accountable. It’s uncomfortable to speak up when someone doesn’t follow through on a commitment: we might feel like we’re being too harsh, or that it might hurt our personal relationships with our employees. But the truth is: by not holding people accountable, we’re actually hurting them and ourselves by making it acceptable to fall through on commitments. This can create an environment where high-performers are forced to carry the weight of everyone else, leading to burnout and resentment among your team. As the CEO, it’s up to you to model this behavior for the rest of your team. Hold yourself and your people accountable to commitments, and they will begin to follow suit.

Now that you’ve heard my journey, I’ll pose the question: are you a CEO who leads by sight, or by instrument?


Sign up to receive content from our “Think” leaders: