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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Be the CEO of Your Job

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Sometimes a person says one sentence that just sticks with you and is so perfect that it defines a whole category of behavior.  Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga, riffed on the phrase “be the CEO of your job” in a board meeting a year or so ago.  It stuck with me and I’ve thought about it many times since.

On Sunday, the NY Times did a great “Corner Office” interview with Mark titled Are You a C.E.O. of Something?  Among other things it explored the idea of being the CEO of your job.  Fred Wilson – also an investor in Zynga – wrote a post on Sunday titled Empowering Your Team which talks about one aspect of this.  But Fred left out a great example from one of Mark’s earlier companies (Support.com) which really nails this concept.

“We had this really motivated, smart receptionist. She was young. We kept outgrowing our phone systems, and she kept coming back and saying, “Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system.” And I said: “I don’t want to hear about it. Just buy it. Go figure it out.” She spent a week or two meeting every vendor and figuring it out. She was so motivated by that. I think that was a big lesson for me because what I realized was that if you give people really big jobs to the point that they’re scared, they have way more fun and they improve their game much faster. She ended up running our whole office.”

Think about the conceptual progression.  First, the CEO (Mark) had to have to courage to make the young, motivated, smart receptionist “be the CEO of her job.”  Then, when the problem was put to him (“Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system”), Mark resisted doing something so many entrepreneurs (and executives, and managers) do – namely to “manage” the problem.  Instead of spending a lot of his time solving the problem, or setting up a committee to spend a month figuring out the phone system, or asking someone more senior to the receptionist to figure it out, he gave her the responsibility of solving the entire problem.  He anointed her “CEO of her job” – as the receptionist, she was the one that felt the most pain from the inadequate phone system and was probably in the best position to figure out a solution.

In this case, the notion of “be the CEO of your job” was in the culture of the organization so the receptionist – who was in Mark’s words young, motivated, and smart – took this seriously, spent real time figuring out the solution, and then solved it.  I’m sure the early culture of Support.com was “don’t spend a lot of money” so the financial constraint, while vague, was probably understood.  While there’s plenty more behind the scenes in the story, the young reception clearly “leveled up” (it’s impossible not to use game-speak when talking about Zynga) and ended up running the whole office.

I work with CEO’s every day.  So I’m naturally wired to encourage them to be CEO of their own job.  While this is pretty meta, it’s an important starting point as I already think this way all the time.  I’m certainly not perfect and have moments where I just jump in and try to solve a specific problem, but most of the time I let the CEO’s be CEO.  However, when I contemplate this, I realize I haven’t done a good job of encouraging the CEO’s to make everyone in their organization CEO of the job.  Some CEO’s do this naturally and – not surprisingly – these are generally the highest achieving companies. 

Pause and ponder the idea.  Assuming you are in an entrepreneurial organization, are you being the CEO of your job?  Is this culturally (and functionally) acceptable?  Do you get rewarded for taking risks and succeeding (or failing) like your CEO does?  If not, would you be more effective if you did? 

Now, if you are the CEO of an entrepreneurial organization, do you encourage everyone in the company to be CEO of their job?  Is this culturally (and functionally) acceptable?  Do they get rewarded for taking risks and succeeding (or failing) like you do?  If not, would they be more effective if they did? 

If you applied the lens of “be the CEO of your job” to you job, would you behave any differently?

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