NEW YORK, United States — In 2000, I graduated from business school and joined McKinsey & Company as a generalist consultant. My very first project was an organisational design project for a multinational corporation and I was tasked with conducting an analysis of how the company’s CEO was allocating his time. I was given access to three months of his calendar, which was filled with meetings, conferences and travel from morning to evening every single day. After reviewing his activities, my boss and I felt the CEO spent way too much time on an airplane. When we discussed this with him, he was surprised by the analysis, but agreed that travel was something he might reconsider.
Twelve years later, as the co-founder and CEO of Moda Operandi (M’O), I find myself in a similar situation: constantly on the road, not because I love travelling, but because I believe I need to do it to grow our company. But if a consultant were to come in and review my schedule, she might offer me the same advice I offered the CEO on that very first project.
The broader question here is: how should a CEO spend his or her time and how does this change as the company grows?
Since founding Moda Operandi, whenever I am asked how I spend my time, my answer has always been the same: “I spend my time on the area of the business that needs me most at that moment.” Recently, that’s meant scaling the international business, which is why I have frequently found myself on the road. But this is not how I spent my time when I started the company and I hope that it won’t be how I spend my time in the future. As a company grows and its senior management team evolves, so does a CEO’s schedule.
Drawing on my personal experience at M’O, here’s how I think a start-up CEO can make the best use of his or her time during specific phases of a company’s life.
Phase 1: Pre-launch
During the first few months of starting a new venture, the question of where a CEO needs to focus his or her time is almost rhetorical. The truth is, you need to spend time on everything. You probably don’t have many employees. And if you do, those initial employees are not likely to be senior, so you will need to closely oversee everything they do.
My first few months included: writing a business plan, fundraising, meeting designers, hiring lawyers and accountants, drafting template contracts, visiting warehouses, negotiating shipping agreements, studying international customs and duties regulations, hiring developers, creating flow charts for our website experience and backend, working with a branding agency, setting up an accounting system, reaching out to key contacts to create an initial customer list, writing company slogans, and trying to figure out how in the world to hire a CTO in New York City.
During this time in a company’s life, a CEO needs to be a machine. I stopped going out. I stopped sleeping late on the weekends. My life was work and whatever was left over was dedicated to spending a little bit of time with my family. Every minute of every waking (and sleeping) hour was spent thinking about the business.
This is a crucial time for a CEO to draw on experience and relationships to get things done. I was lucky to have a broad range of work experience — as a lawyer, consultant, investor and operator — and all of this experience was critical in those early days. I frankly don’t understand how young entrepreneurs who lack experience get a business off the ground.
Phase 2: The first 6 months post-launch
During this phase, you have caught your breath and are likely to bring on some senior managers who can help you get things done. But there will still be meaningful holes in the team. The CEO can temporarily fill some of these gaps, but you won’t be able to cover all of the outstanding functional roles. So your hiring decisions during this phase should be prioritized around filling the most critical roles in the business, plus any meaningful gaps in the founder’s experience or skill set.
In the case of Moda Operandi, the biggest hole in our experience was our lack of technology expertise, so one of our very first hires was a chief technical officer, or CTO. Another critical head to hire was a chief marketing officer, or CMO, the person responsible for acquiring our initial customer set. With these positions filled, I was able to focus my time on the other critical functions, including finance, legal, growth strategy, HR, logistics and merchandising.
Phase 3: Growth
By this stage, your business is up and humming and most of the key members of the management team are in place. This means the company now has experts on-board in each functional area who probably understand their specific area of expertise better than you do. This is when a CEO’s role shifts to overseeing three critical needs.
The first is inward focused: keeping the business growing by prioritising tasks and making sure that everyone is working together smoothly and efficiently so that orders are fulfilled, revenue is booked and numbers are met. The second is outward facing: making sure the company continues to acquire customers and vendors. And the third is perhaps the most difficult: being something of a visionary and a worrywart all at once; someone who can both see beyond day-to-day operations and embrace innovations that are vital to the company’s future, as well as look back over their shoulder to see how the competition is coming along.
It is undoubtedly challenging for a CEO to balance these three tasks. And in some ways, the way you allocate your time comes full circle: a CEO has to do a bit of everything. If this quarter calls for being in the office honing the machine, in the office you are. If next quarter requires you to grow your business abroad, on a plane you are. Being a leader is about filling in potholes as they arise as much as paving the road forward. The trick is to stay on top of the larger game plan, while also focusing on the smaller details.
Previous articles in the Finding Your MO series:
Part 1: From Big Idea to Launch
Part 2: The Need for Speed
Part 3: The Business Plan is Your Roadmap
Part 4: Making the Most of Mentorship
Part 5: How to Choose the Right Investors
Part 6: How Wise is Conventional Wisdom?
Part 7: Going International
Part 8: Managing Investors
Part 9: Acquiring Customers
Part 10: Building the Team
Part 11: Motivating and Retaining Talent
Part 12: Re-inventing Yourself
Áslaug Magnúsdóttir is co-founder and former CEO of Moda Operandi.