How do you CEO? / Michael Batko @ Startmate
A learning journey of how startup CEOs work.
Over the past 6 six months, I've interviewed 10+ CEOs to learn how to do my job better.
Whilst doing the CEO interviews, many asked me to "interview myself”. So, as an intermission whilst I'm writing up the last couple of interviews, this post is about my own style.
If you want to come along the CEO journey - hit subscribe 💥
#12 Michael Batko / CEO @ Startmate
How do you CEO?
I keep reminding myself about my own job description as a CEO and pull out of the day-to-day as much as I can.
Set a vision and strategy.
Get the money to execute.
Hire the team to execute.
Hold the team accountable.
Evangelise the vision.
The job keeps changing as the company grows.
At first, there was not much strategy work, with my time spent on doing work myself, hiring and holding the team accountable.
With a team of 20, it finally allowed me to step out of the day-to-day mostly and spend much more time on setting the vision and strategy, evangelising and also stepping in to get the money where most needed.
Holding the team accountable is the part which drains me the most. Team members who hold themselves accountable to high performance, live the values and evangelise the mission are golden. What is energy draining are team members who keep questioning the direction without offering their input or suggestions and sandbag goals. We’re here to do the best work of our lives, have a massive impact and work together to make incredible things happen. I’m a huge believer in the Growth Mindset, so naysayers and problem creators without a can-do and forward-looking attitude sadden me.
The evangelisation of Startmate’s vision and future is what I see as the highest ROI of my time. As CEO you’re uniquely positioned to do that, but it is the first area that gets deprioritised to put out fires.
As the company grows, communication complexity increases which slows everything down.
The decrease in speed of execution and perceived need for higher quality work over “just start, mate” is what I think about a lot.
We have a very async way of working through Slack mostly.
I over-index on speed.
One of the most impactful things I thought I could do in the day-to-day is refocus the team on what’s important ie reprioritise and unblock the team. I am very Slack active and am often the first one to jump in to provide help, access, point to the right resource or answer a question.
I’ve changed my views here. I am slowly moving away from the habit, but I just hate the thought of someone getting stuck on a piece of work for hours, when I know I can point them to the right place within seconds. Now the most impactful thing I can do is evangelise the Startmate story and future internally and externally, which helps the team prioritise, brings them on the journey and motivates.
How do you set strategy?
In the early days, it would just be me writing a document based on Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. I even created a template. It was ok’ish for a team of 2-8 people, as it helped me sequence the pathway, but It really sucked in getting wider team adoption beyond execution.
I’m still learning and have realised that strategy is more than just setting the direction for the business. Strategy work is a key tool that can enable the whole team to rally around a goal.
You actually want to get the team involved.
They challenge your thinking and make it better.
Most importantly, they make it their own.
You want your team to write part of the strategy as the buy-in is so much higher.
With the obvious caveat (which is at odds with my core) that it will take much longer.
The key is to find the balance when to put your foot down if the strategy veers in the wrong direction. Don’t over-index the strategy on the capabilities of specific team members, but on what is truly important for the company. Employees can leave and give up on the strategy with four weeks’ notice. It is crucial for the strategy to be right regardless of the loud voices in the team.
So you want to have a good gut sense about it because at the end of the day the first and last person responsible for it is yourself.
My favourite way to look at strategy is that strategy is sequencing your journey to build strength along the way.
I keep getting challenged to provide a perfect roadmap for the future.
But nobody knows the future.
You can’t predict things perfectly.
To me, strategy is a future state you want to build towards and knowing the key components to getting there.
But just as important as knowing that state is strategic agility - to know when to shift things around to build on current opportunities and increase the strength of your position.
How do you communicate the strategy?
The way we come up with the strategy is by working through the How to Win framework.
Bad Strategy, Good Strategy was a great book, but I found it to be more conceptually useful than to stimulate the right discussion.
Playing to Win provides a great set of building blocks with key questions that facilitate a great leadership discussion on what winning looks like, how you win, where you play, what you don’t do and what capabilities you need.
The discussion itself creates the full buy-in that we’re going in the right direction.
Then each ‘Head of’ creates the same framework for their stream, coupled with the company strategy, which further translates to our goals and budget. Once we put all of them together, we sense-check whether the annual goals meet the company budget baseline and stretch goals. Each ‘Head of’ then presents their strategy and goals back to the whole company.
Off the back of these CEO interviews, I also created a SOP - strategy on one page. The intention is to keep revisiting it at the fortnightly All-Hands.
How do you set goals?
We’ve gone through many changes over the years.
At first, we tried strict quarterly OKRs.
But they became burdensome too quickly.
People would stick too closely to OKR definitions, arguing about the metric more than delivering on it.
Quarterly was also too often as you essentially spent 2-4 weeks of the 12-week quarter on goal setting which was always frustrating.
Additionally, people would be killing themselves to hit stretch goals and when they were hit we would have minimal celebration, so stretch goals really just became the norm.
The iteration was to be more flexible with OKRs and also allow binary outcomes with deadlines or OKRs to do with exploration and learning rather than with hard goals.
We also introduced a Base and a Stretch target for each Key Result, which helped with the feeling that you always had to hit stretch goals.
The problem here was that we ended up with a laundry list of goals.
Five objectives where each had five key results of a base and stretch target. 25 key results which became less meaningful the more of them we had.
As Startmate works more closely to 6-monthly cycles with our bi-annual programs, we transitioned to 6-monthly goals.
We’ve now adopted the NCT framework, because as the company grows the narrative of why something is important became more important than hundreds of goals. NCTs stand for narrative, commitments and tasks.
The narrative describes how the goals fit into the strategy - this is a key piece for us. The team should know how the work they are doing now is helping the company move towards its winning aspiration
The commitments are base-level goals which the team is 100% committed to getting done in that half-year and a second stretch target to the commitment. It gives you clarity and peace of mind to know what the team is working on and when to expect it.
The tasks can be a long list of things that the team might do to get to the Commitments, but they don’t have to all be done as long as we hit the Commitments.
How do you communicate sensitive information?
I am super transparent. There is hardly any question in the world that you could ask me that I wouldn’t answer to the best of my knowledge nor do I ever get offended.
This culture is carried through to Startmate.
We work transparently with everyone in the ecosystem, our founders, fellows and investors.
When things go well and don’t go well we communicate them.
When things go south, the only way you can get help is if you tell people.
One of the ways we do that is to write our own monthly Good Bad and Ugly which goes out to the entire community and is posted publicly on the Startmate website.
One area which I find much harder to navigate is team members leaving.
I over-optimise for the leaving team member to have a good experience to the detriment of creating confidence in the team.
Unfortunately, the way I’ve managed it to date is too skewed to the narrative of the person who is leaving. The team lacks the context on why it is happening, so absorbs the only narrative available which is the one of the person leaving.
This leads to the team questioning you, the company strategy and the environment that a perceived high performer left the business as they only know one side of the narrative.
You always want your team members to leave with dignity and the narrative itself is a fine balance to strike between the person and the company narrative of why they are leaving. It is something I still struggle with and aim to get better at.
The way I communicate it is first with the leadership team, then the immediate team, and then All-hands.
As soon as it is communicated we’re focusing on handovers and making sure the team around them has all the necessary information.