How I Became a CEO

August 10, 2016

Case categories include: Entrepreneurship   Executive Development   Leadership   Strategy & Planning   

By Warren Lutz

Being a CEO was not exactly what Rachel Haurwitz had envisioned for herself—at least not as her very first job.

Haurwitz was still a UC Berkeley grad student when she and three colleagues began working with a unique genome editing tool, CRISPR, and created a startup to explore its commercial potential. When her colleagues elected to stay in academia, Haurwitz became the CEO of that startup, Caribou Biosciences.

In the four years since, Haurwitz, now 31, has transformed Caribou into a growing enterprise by raising $30M in funding and negotiating strategic partners with global companies such as Novartis. She says her lack of experience was both a hurdle and a blessing.

“If I could go back, I would probably have taken more business classes or tried to intern at a biotech company before jumping into becoming a CEO,” she says. “But I had enough knowledge at my fingertips to hit the ground running. I had naiveté, but that helped because I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.”

While public perception of CEOs is that they have “cushy” jobs and get paid handsomely for telling everyone else what to do, Alliance members know the truth. The CEO accepts the responsibility for an organization’s success or failure, and is the one most likely to lie awake at night worrying about the challenges and threats that lie ahead. And between customers, employees, investors and board members, nobody has more people to answer to than a CEO.

For Haurwitz, the biggest challenge of being a CEO was deciding what to do with technology that had great potential. “We could have built 500 different versions of the company, so the hardest part has been how to focus and define a near-term and long-term strategy. It’s really finding the path forward.”

Nadim Maluf, CEO of Qnovo, learned plenty about being a CEO from the ones he worked for. “By 2008, I had worked for several CEOs, half of whom I admired, and the other half, I utterly disrespected,” he said. “Invariably, the CEOs I admired were able to recognize the strength of their teams and build on those strengths. For CEOs who did not perform to my level of expectation, it was the opposite. When you get a sense from other employees that coming into work is a chore, that’s your first sign that something is wrong.”

Building and nurturing a team is what Maluf finds both the most enjoyable and most challenging part of his job. “I once asked my organization why companies fail. The answers were diverse and typical, ranging from bad business models to running out of money. In reality, companies, especially small companies, fail because of bad teams. The rest are symptoms of bad teams and poor leadership. So what I enjoy the most is our team. I love working with A teams; building A teams; nurturing A teams; inspiring and challenging A teams.”

For some Alliance members, reaching the CEO’s chair was the fulfillment of a career-long goal. So it was for Chris Rivielle, who was recruited in 2015 to become the President & CEO of Plant Construction Company. But there were still huge lessons Rivielle had to learn.

“One was that you must have patience, and that your patience is going to be strained and stretched,” he said. “You need to make sure what you’re seeing and what you’re thinking is accurate, and you can only do that over time. You also need to make sure you have the right people in place at the right time and that they have the necessary resources before you act, and often things aren’t resolved as quickly as you would like. When I was an executive, I didn’t have to be patient—I just had to execute.”

Rivielle also learned to over-communicate. “I learned that even when I was crystal clear with my message and thoughtful in my delivery, one or more of my extended teams would interpret it differently,” he said. “You have to communicate the same message over and over again, because when you’re communicating with large numbers of people, your message is almost never received the way you intended it to be to all the first time.”

Kirsten Bay, President & CEO of security platform provider Cyber adAPT, wanted to be a CEO to help people and make an impact. “In that sense, the job has met my expectations,” she says. “But I didn’t understand the ability I had to see the potential in other people and push them to do even better than they thought they could. That has been my biggest surprise and also the greatest joy. It’s what gets me up every day.”

Bay, who has been a CEO twice before, says there are difficulties, too. “Board dynamics and managing the different expectations of board members has certainly been one of the more challenging aspects of the job,” she said. “Learning to create a solid partnership with your board is important.” So is maintaining a work/life balance—which can be hard with so many responsibilities on a CEO’s plate. “You need to take time for yourself to stay nimble in your thinking,” Bay says. “You can become so task oriented that you lose that sharpness. I notice it creeping in when I start answering emails too quickly. It’s important to slow down and think.”

Sameer Padhye, Founder & CEO of FixStream Networks, spent 20 years in senior management roles at Cisco, but found all that experience didn’t make running a much smaller company any easier. “There’s a huge change of dynamics,” Padhye said. “In a large company, you have a roof over your head that is provided by the company. When you become a CEO of a small company, you become the roof. You make all the decisions. Your team is very small, so when someone doesn’t perform or leaves the company, it has a huge impact.”

While the challenges are many, Padhye enjoys having the freedom to make his own decisions. He also loves interacting with customers. “Our business is changing the way things are done. Getting our customers’ feedback, being able to react quickly with a very small team, and bringing new innovations to market—that whole process is very exciting.”

Timothy Robertson had worked at various startups, but never as CEO until he and a neighborhood friend launched Vium in 2013 to automate pre-clinical animal research. For the first year of the company, when it was just Robertson and his Vium co-founder, “there wasn’t very much CEO-ness about the job,” he says. “We were in the basement talking about business and I kept asking myself, am I doing the CEO job? Am I succeeding? It didn’t start to feel like a real job until we started raising money, because then people look to you and they expect you to have answers.”

As Vium grew, Robertson, who says he is “inherently an introvert,” had to become more comfortable being the center of attention, simply by virtue of his title. With 50 people now on staff, Robertson is learning how to project his leadership more effectively. “When you assume people know what they are doing, you generally interact with them only when problems come up, which can create an undercurrent of negativity,” he said. “I’ve had to learn to stretch and interact more, and to be much more positive and more thoughtful about the words I use.”

He’s also learned to recognize his limitations. “Most CEOs are very capable individuals and there were probably times in their careers when they did superhero things on their own,” he says. “You can’t do that as a CEO. No matter how hard you work, it’s really about harnessing the capabilities of others. You have to work smarter. It’s a big shift.”

While the public’s perception of CEOs may be off base, the expectations these Alliance members had about the job were not a hundred percent accurate, either. Being a CEO was infinitely harder than anyone thought, no matter how much experience they had—but more rewarding, too.

Perhaps the only certainty about being a CEO is that there’s no certainty at all. And yet, who would want it any other way?