Some friends and I were recently discussing the CEO job description, with each of us sharing what we do everyday. The CEO role is different from that of a Founder, and I approach my responsibilities as CEO by viewing myself as Steward of the Tree.
Over the years, we have nurtured a tiny seed of a company into a healthy little tree. Our tree helps all sorts of creatures live their lives: it offers shade for customers, fruit for owners, and branches on which employees can build their nests. The leaves that fall during autumn decompose and fertilize the forest floor of our community. Our seeds scatter in the wind, take root elsewhere in the forest, and begin their own journey toward tree-dom.
Our tree is still young, and has plenty more room to grow. My task as Steward of the Tree is to help it fulfill its potential – to grow to maturity so that it’s impact is amplified many times over what it is now.
I can make reckless decisions that stunt its growth or kill it. I might push it to grow at a rate that’s ultimately unhealthy, and would cause its branches to weaken or would jeopardize it’s strength by not giving its roots time enough to dig deeper into the soil. Or I might be negligent or lackadaisical, so that other trees reach up and block our sunshine, and then our little tree will wither.
When I’m being most effective, there’s not really anything that I must do. The tree is just fine without me tending to it for a few days. But there is always something I could be doing: whether it’s pruning a rogue branch, inspecting a fungus, or simply learning about how to help trees be healthier.
If there’s nothing in particular that I need to do on a given day, rather than feeling lost, useless, or guilty about it (which I’ve come to learn is a common feeling among CEOs), I should feel some pride: I have helped a seed grow to a strapping young tree that doesn’t need my immediate attention. If the tree needs my constant tending—if I am fighting back blights or urgently toting buckets of water during dry spells—then perhaps I am tending it in the wrong way. That’s probably a signal that I could be doing a better job as a steward.
Our executive team recently finished The Hard Thing about Hard Things, and we spent a good bit of time on the one of the common themes in the book: the difference between “wartime” and “peacetime” CEOs. In growing our business through four years of a great economic apocalypse, every day certainly felt like battle, and I’m grateful to have shared that difficult journey with some incredibly talented and committed people.
Today, we may not feel so many immediate threats to our existence—we have enough recurring revenue, enough operating income, and enough cash on hand to withstand a great many blows—but insidious threats still loom. We are no longer battling to ensure that our tree survives until tomorrow or next month. Today, we battle to ensure that our tree is thriving years from now. The threats are less obvious and palpable (which makes some aspects of the steward’s job more challenging), but they’re still all around us. We must still combat our greatest enemy: complacency.
A handful of writings and people that have influenced my thinking about the CEO’s job:
The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono
How Andreesen Horowitz evaluates CEOs, Ben Horowitz (this post was also in THTAHT)
What a CEO Does, Fred Wilson
I first came across the “CEO as Steward” analogy from one of our customers, Scott Barr of Southwest Exteriors, an accomplished remodeler in San Antonio.