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3 Keys to Stop Being a Helicopter CEO

CEOs should stop micromanaging and hire the right people to manage the small detail
By Caren Maio |


If you’re a child of the ’80s like me, you’ll be familiar with the concept of the “helicopter parent,” meaning moms and dads who figure that the best way to ensure their kids’ success is to be truly hands-on.


Whether it’s debating a report card with their kids' second-grade teacher or arguing with the junior-varsity basketball coach about playing time, helicopter parents just can’t let go.



Here I'll relate that I have a "child" (of sorts) of my own -- an online startup called Nestio, which helps landlords market and lease apartments. Over several years, we’ve grown to more than 40 employees. And, as we’ve grown, I’ve discovered a hard truth: It’s incredibly difficult to let go, especially when you’re so invested in your baby’s success.


But I've also found that being a “helicopter boss” just doesn’t work, as your company scales. It’s not humanly possible, it’s not healthy and it’s actually counterproductive. While a fast-growing company has millions of priorities, I’ve learned the hard way that my role ultimately boils down to three critical and interrelated functions. By focusing on just these three, and reining in my helicopter tendencies, I've discovered that it’s possible to get out of the way and let your startup thrive.



1. Recruit great employees

You can’t do it all, so find the people who can. Earlier this year, we completed a series A financing round, and have plans to quadruple in size within months. Series A was a breaking point. I realized I couldn’t continue to have my hands in everything. In fact, it was holding us back. This realization didn’t come easily, however. I love sales, for instance.


Yet while I still interact with customers and even close deals from time to time, I’m no longer involved in every sale. I couldn’t afford to lavish time on just one aspect of the business. I had to find the right talent and delegate.


Next lesson? Finding great people is an art in itself. I’ve found that leaning on the people you already trust and tapping their networks is the surest path to success. To that end, we’ve designed a bonus system for existing employees who refer candidates our way. As Google and others have learned, however, it’s not all about the cash. The referrals that matter most come from people who truly love the company and excel in their roles. Bottom line: "A" players know "A" players and should be your first call.



2. Retain good employees

Once you’ve got them on board, keep them there. Employee retention is a challenge companies of all sizes encounter, and there’s no easy fix. Having a solid culture, one that employees want to grow with, is the most important element. But finding ways to keep the lines of communication open can also go a long way toward keeping people happy and on board -- something that organizations as diverse as Google, American Express and Southwest Airlines have also recognized.


The tricky part as CEO is finding the time for communication. Every other month, I hold office hours, where employees share whatever’s on their minds. And, on a less formal level, I try to never turn down an invitation for a coffee.


During a recent coffee break with a group of newly hired engineers, I discovered they wanted to know more about our industry. Based on that, we decided to launch a Real Estate 101 class -- a lunch-and-learn opportunity that the whole company now participates in. Because replacing an employee costs one-fifth of an existing one's salary, I’d say our lunch-and-learn sessions are an investment of time worth making.



3. Ensure adequate funding

This one’s a no-brainer. If you can’t pay salaries, support marketing campaigns or even keep the lights on, you don’t have a company. Period. The good news is that, generally speaking, if you’re good at the other two functions above, this one should fall into place. The one area that I did have to brush up on, myself, was investor relations.


A key priority for any CEO should be keeping investors engaged, updated and informed long before (and after) the requisite capital is required. Even if you’re not explicitly seeking new funding, you should always be meeting new people and strengthening new investor relationships. As all-star VC Mark Suster has said, “Fundraising is an ongoing process and not an event on a work plan.”


I met with our series A investors months before we began raising money. Just as happens when you date before you marry, you want to make sure any resulting relationship will work through thick and thin. So, even now, I’m regularly going to our investors for input. I get to benefit from their advice, show my commitment and stay top of mind.



Five years into this adventure, I’m finally ready to land that helicopter of mine.


A lot of people -- even me, early on -- experience a kind of high of self-importance from believing that their business depends on them. It doesn't. At least it shouldn’t. In fact, I’m starting to learn that the most effective CEOs share an uncanny ability to make themselves redundant, take themselves out of the picture and put the pieces into place to enable the business to run independently.


Thanks to a bit of prioritizing of my own, I’m proud to say that my baby can now walk, talk and run on its own.




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