Inspiration for this article arrived via feedback from one of our mentees, who is grappling with what can best be described as a ‘volcanic CEO’.
Most Sunday nights she receives an email from the CEO delivering a barrage of expletive led criticisms of his senior management team.
An extract below [expletives removed for those with a sensitive disposition];
“I’ve not received any _______ board reports and I’m _______ if I’m going to spend every Sunday night chasing them up. I am perceived as incompetent by my investors because of you ________ which is not only a disaster for me, but will soon be a disaster for you lot.
Pull your socks up or __ off”
We have a stable of amazing mentors around the world, with different experiences and perspectives but, I suspect most of them would be advising less about how to handle that particular CEO and more about sending in your CV and letting us help you build a life raft.
Now for sure, the CEO has a ton of pressures on their sometimes fragile shoulders and this kind of explosive reaction often indicates that something else is going on in the background.
Or maybe they just have anger management issues.
But even in the best of times it can be a difficult relationship to manage, with or without this type of explosivity attached and therefore, what are some of the classic differences and tensions between what are often very different characters?
What to look for in finding the yin to your yang?
We put this question to our own CEO:CTO duo here at CTO Academy, Andrew Weaver and Jason Noble, who seem to manage the dynamic rather well;
What’s your history of working together?
AW: We briefly met through an earlier start up, where we bonded more around football and early 80’s music than anything else. We decided then that we liked the cut of each others gib and when we found ourselves exiting other projects at the same time, we looked at a couple of brewing ideas and decided to work together on CTO Academy.
Do you think it helps to know someone before going into business together?
JN: It’s a massive bonus and I think particularly with a CEO:CTO dynamic where the personalities are often very different. By getting to know each other across a couple of projects we felt confident and comfortable about the strengths, weaknesses and synergies.
AW: Absolutely, doesn’t mean we’re running through sunlit meadows holding hands in eternal start up bliss. I’m typically seen taking an 80/20 approach to problems whilst Jas is more detailed than me, which can bring with it some potential points of conflict but so far, so good.We seem to be meeting in the middle most of the time and I think that’s because we came into this as pals, as well as co-founders.
You’ve pre-empted my next question, where do you see the biggest differences and how do you manage them?
AW: Typically Jas has to dampen down my over excitable enthusiasm with new ideas, angles, directions. It’s always tricky for an early stage company that is iterating all the time, because you have a million options and when you hit an early roadblock, it’s tempting and sometimes instinctive to want to change quickly. Whilst we are agile enough to do that, Jas definitely brings a calmness and reflection to our decision making process. The phrase commonly used in our stand ups is … “just to be devil’s advocate about that idea …”. Equally I think I’ve helped to bring out the presenter and communication skills in Jason. He’s got so much experience and such an appetite for helping other tech professionals that CTO Academy was natural product for him to launch, but brings with it a lot of customer and market facing requirements that are water off a duck’s back for me, much more challenging for him.
JN: Andrew is far better than many CEOs I’ve met where literally, you can wake up one morning and everything has changed. But he still has a tendency to fire off new ideas and suggestions, quite soon after we’ve implemented the previous set. We’ve managed to find a good balance between us that works. I also agree that our comfort zones are in very different places and mine was certainly never in front of a camera or speaking to large audiences. I’ve had to force myself to get out there and communicate, in a way that seems natural to him but anathema to me.
Do you think it’s easier because you’re co-founders rather than more standard CEO as boss scenario?
JN: Yes I think so. To be honest, I’m not really operating in a true CTO role at the moment. We’re still quite early stage and it’s all hands to the pump but certainly we operate together as equals and that’s not always the dynamic. Andrew tends to lead on strategic direction, and I lead with what’s possible (and impossible at this stage) from a technical perspective but as co-founders we definitely share more of the journey and expectation than I’ve experienced with previous CEOs.
What do you look for in a CEO, Jas?
Stick to one plan?
Particularly in early stage companies, I’ve seen and experienced too many CEOs who flit between the latest great idea, often without giving the earlier one chance to settle.
But in reality I know it’s not an easy job so I look for someone who can deliver what you need, decisiveness, vision, but also someone capable of holding their hand up, communicating when things might be going wrong.
I once saw a survey by HBR I think, that reported that among CEOs who were fired over issues related to decision making, only one-third lost their jobs because they’d made bad calls; the rest were ousted for being indecisive. Andrew is rarely indecisive.
I’ve also had problems in the past with defensive CEOs. You need to leave your ego at the door and adopt a growth mindset. This is about us building something useful and sustainable, it’s not about you.
What do you look for in a CTO, Andrew?
I need them to be patient. That’s for sure.
After that, I’m looking for someone who is creative but practical. They’re capable of managing trade-offs and not hanging onto perfection.
Definitely need them to be commercial and agile. Don’t be building products with all the gizmos, that the market doesn’t want.
If they can combine being creative and innovative with a commercial understanding of the market then we are in business.
How do you manage the remote nature of working together?
AW: Work really well. I’m in Madrid, Jason is in London so I’m one hour ahead and an early morning person which often means I’ve done 2-3 hours work before Jason is opening his slack inbox, often with a startled reaction.
JN: Yes, I often wake up to an overflowing inbox. I’m a big process person and had to train Andrew early about how best to communicate in a way that didn’t overwhelm the rest of the team.
AW: I’m not a massive process person so have had to accept some training in that area. But we both love our lifestyle and the freedom that working from home can bring so it feels completely natural. We have a daily team meeting which can often include other members of our global team. Zoom is our platform of choice though definitely helps if you know or can meet someone as well as being remote. It’s definitely more tricky from my experience, when it’s remote only.
Have you found the Yin, to each other’s Yang?
AW: I’m not sure who is the Yin or who is the Yang, but so far so good.
JN: To be devil’s advocate for a moment …
Find out more about our Jas and Andrew the CTO Academy team page.
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