The Early Stages of Being a CEO: Engagement is Key

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Discovering your roles and responsibilities will be a big part of your first few months of being a CEO. One of the key tips from Benedetta Arese Lucini, CEO of Oval Money, points towards engagement. Benedetta’s personal experience shows that though it is tempting to focus exclusively on internal issues, staying engaged with outside groups is vital to success in young businesses.

My first role as a startup “founder” was an unusual one. I was formerly the Country Manager of Uber in Italy. At the time, Uber had already established itself as one of the great “disruptors” in the United States, but the rollout in Europe and Italy specifically entailed setting up a company from scratch in a difficult environment. Members of the Italian public were excited to have this new service available to them. But entrenched interests such as the taxi unions had a different view of Uber. From nearly the first day, I was thrust into a national debate that touched on complex issues around labor, transportation, and digital change.

The story of how that debate played out can be told elsewhere, but my experience at Uber did teach me a very important lesson about engagement. Because Uber’s arrival was so controversial, my role as Country Manager required that I engage with a wide range of stakeholders, including politicians, regulators, intellectuals, journalists, and members of the public. At first, it was jarring to be pulled in so many directions. I was being forced to spend so much time and energy engaging in a public debate that it proved challenging to manage the operations of our startup at the critical early stage.

But hindsight has taught me how important the experience of “engagement overload” was in helping me to develop my skillsets as an entrepreneur. Having recently co-founded Oval Money, a company which has launched a leading financial management and financial education app, I found myself once again the CEO of a new business. But the circumstances were different. Unlike Uber, Oval didn’t have the baggage of being a disruptive entrant in a politicized sector like transportation. In this sense, Oval was a much more typical start-up.

Founders and entrepreneurs are often advised that nothing matters more than focus. We hear and read stories about executives who, in the early stages of their company’s growth, were so totally focused on their mission that they cast aside everything else. The image we invoke is that of the determined founder becoming a hermit as they try to grow their business, focused on solving internal challenges.

This is a misleading image. Entrepreneurs and founders, especially at the early stages of a new startup or venture, should absolutely remain engaged with a wide range of stakeholders—this too is part of being focused. When I was leading Oval to market, it was tempting to close myself off to any engagements, opportunities, or conversations that were not directly related to Oval’s operational or business development needs.

But the habits developed from my days at Uber were stubborn, and I continued to speak to regulators, financial researchers, seasoned executives, journalists, and members of the public on a regular basis. I found myself mentoring other founders, producing a radio program on startups, and my own column in a major Italian Newspaper on entrepreneurship, engaging in a wide range of conferences, and a whole host of other activities that might have been labeled “distractions.”

No doubt, I was able to do this because of the operational discipline of my other co-founders, who made sure we kept hitting our development deadlines. Importantly, I had their encouragement taking part in a wide range of engagements. They understood how it was benefitting our business.

There are two key benefits worth highlighting. First, engaging with a wide range of people helps provide insights that can make a product or service better. Countless times, I have gotten useful feedback from an unexpected place, whether a perceptive comment made by a journalist, an earnest question from a member of the public, or a critical assessment from a subject expert. It can be scary to engage widely, because it means subjecting your idea and company to outside assessments. But that is absolutely essential to creating a winning business.

Second, entrepreneurs need to remember that success doesn’t just come. You need to attract success. To do so, as a company grows, the senior executives necessarily need to expand their circle of critical relationships. We often read about determined CEOs who have been so isolated as they establish their company, that they have a struggle when finally required to engage with potential new talent, investors, the media, or their users. Some sectors, like the fintech sector in which I now work, have developed a culture that pushes CEOs to be public facing from the start. But other sectors don’t have such a strong cultural influence, and may have fewer events and organizations that serve as venues for engagement, putting the onus on the business leaders to push themselves to be outgoing.

In short, the adage, “everything in moderation,” applies to focus too. Only focusing on internal and operational issues, at the expense of conversations that can be illuminating, inspiring, or lead to new opportunities, is itself a mistake. Participating in events, joining industry groups, being active in public relations, and even continuing to important issues you believe in as well as having an active social life can all be virtues for an early-stage CEOs. Most importantly, the more executives that subscribe to this idea, the richer the engagements will be.

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