10 years ago, top executive talent — CEOs especially — had a firm understanding of exactly where they belonged. Some knew they thrived in a small business, a startup, or early-stage environments and actively sought this landscape. They would rarely think to stray outside the startup world or consider a large public company outside of tech, mid-market businesses, or PE-backed startups.
On the flip side, other CEOs knew they excelled in an established enterprise business or large company, and they wouldn’t consider leaving a steady and "traditional" environment for the hustle and bustle of a startup.
That’s not so much the case anymore.
Today, there is a growing convergence between the talent pool between tech, startups, large enterprises, and private equity.
This begs the questions: Are startup CEOs and enterprise CEOs equipped with the experience, qualities, and skill sets needed to succeed in a landscape they might not be familiar with? Are their skills transferable, or are there stark differences needed for each? Where are the lines drawn and where do they blur?
In this blog, we explore startup CEOs vs. enterprise CEOs, their respective business landscapes, the traits unique to each, and what they have in common. Ultimately, knowing the differences between a startup CEO and an enterprise CEO minimizes the risk of making hiring mistakes in your executive search initiatives.
With an extensive network of prime candidates other recruiters don’t have access to, we can help you fill open CEO and senior executive positions 6–8x faster than traditional recruitment firms.
The CEO Spectrum: When Gerber's CEO Joined a High-Growth Startup
While there are some distinct traits that are more commonly found in startup CEOs and vice versa (we'll cover all this below), it doesn't mean that they can't be transferrable in a positive way.
In fact, the experience of a startup CEO can be just what an enterprise needs, the same way a startup might need a distinguished leader from an enterprise.
This is exactly the case of Gerber Baby Food's CEO, Bill Partyka.
After 35 years working his way up and through executive-level roles for massive global organizations, including General Mills, Conagra Foods, Pfizer, and Nestle, he had the opportunity to join as CEO of an up-and-coming pet CBD company called Kradle.
The Startup CEO Landscape: What Type of Environment Do They Thrive In?
When entrepreneurs start up a new business, the environment is far different than in established organizations. The early stages are fluid, high-risk, unpredictable, and innovation-driven.
This is why startups need a Chief Executive Officer who can navigate such unique challenges. From unprecedented market shifts to fundraising obstacles, a successful CEO should be able to handle the ups and downs of getting a business off the ground while never losing sight of the big picture.
A startup company is a dynamic environment filled with:
- High uncertainty and agility.
- Rampant innovation and out-of-the-box thinking.
- Fast-paced (and evolving) operations.
- Hands-on leadership with minimal hierarchal org structures.
- Limited resources (team, bandwidth, funds, etc.).
- Networking and strategic partnership.
Ultimately, the startup environment is where ambitious entrepreneurs plant the seeds of their ideas, nurturing them with hard work and dedication.
CEOs in this landscape are focused on rapid growth, lean operations, and achieving big things with limited resources. This growth-focused mindset is reflected in their key responsibilities:
- Vision setting: A well-defined vision is attractive to potential investors and customers. Startup CEOs should be able to articulate a company’s vision, making it resonate with investors and customers alike. From there, they must use these values to communicate how the company solves problems and the impact their solutions bring to the table.
- Resource allocation with limited funds: Few startups are rolling in cash, so another role of the CEO is to determine how to use funds effectively. At the startup level, the CEO may be the one who decides whether to hire new team members, invest in product development, move into new locations, or even launch a marketing campaign.
- Fostering company culture: Since a startup is pretty much a blank slate, it’s up to the CEO to mold the team members into what best represents the organization’s vision. CEOs need to share their cultural vision with other leaders. Using the core values, the CEO should be intricately involved with the human resources department in establishing and nurturing a culture.
It's no surprise that so much can go wrong here. With so much at stake with a startup, the CEO in the seat must be a perfect fit. And there are a handful of traits and qualities they absolutely need in order to succeed.
Finding the Perfect Fit: 9 Essential Traits Every Startup CEO Needs
Startup CEOs have a unique and demanding role that requires a distinct set of qualities. These eight essential traits are what separate successful startup CEOs from the rest.
The leader in a startup’s CEO seat must be able to pivot based on market feedback and changing conditions. Whether it be changes in consumer behaviors or a major economic event, a startup CEO must know when to change courses and how to jump on opportunities.
All Aboard on Tech
A startup CEO needs an inquisitive nature and to be keenly interested in emerging technologies. They should have a visionary mindset to figure out how to then use these innovations for the company's benefit.
Deviating from the norm should be more exciting than scary. Successful startup CEOs understand that breaking away from traditional business models may yield unique advantages and are willing to take that leap.
High Risk Tolerance
While they can’t be outright reckless, a successful CEO for a startup won’t be afraid of making bold moves and taking the occasional calculated risk. They need the ability to deal with uncertainty, make big decisions, and stand behind them in the hopes of paying off.
In the beginning, the CEO may need to wear multiple hats to get the business off the ground. They’ll be involved in the day-to-day operations and ready to dive into details when needed.
Resilience and Grit
Startup CEOs need to have tenacity and a strong backbone. Building a startup is riddled with obstacles, setbacks, and moments of self-doubt. Facing criticism and standing firm in their vision in the face of uncertainty and constant challenges takes a tenacious, confident, and outright stubborn nature.
Knowing how to build the right team is critical for a startup CEO and may just be the most important point on this list. The entire venture's success hinges on its team members' collective capabilities, dedication, and alignment.
Putting together a leadership team is usually one of the bigger tasks on a startup CEO's plate. Finding and hiring a COO, CFO, and other members of the executive team is crucial to the company’s long-term viability in the market.
Additionally, the CEO needs the personality and drive to get everyone motivated and on the same page.
Entrepreneurial Spirit and Fails Forward
The business owner isn’t the only one who must exhibit entrepreneurship — CEOs of startups need it too. Having an entrepreneurial spirit and being able to roll with and learn from failures are pivotal attributes for every member of a startup’s executive team.
This is because startup CEOs must be willing to challenge the status quo, identify unmet needs, and boldly embark on uncharted paths.
Failure is an inevitable part of the startup journey, and it's where some of the most valuable lessons are learned. The most successful startup CEOs will back from failure and use it as a stepping stone toward improvement and growth.
Startups often operate with limited budgets, tight timelines, skeleton staff, and a need for rapid problem-solving. This environment demands finding creative solutions to challenges, making the most of available resources, and leveraging networks and partnerships to achieve goals efficiently.
A resourceful CEO dives in head-first, quickly adapting to changing circumstances and maximizing the impact of every dollar and hour invested.
On the Other Hand: Exploring the Enterprise CEO Landscape
A CEO's role at an enterprise company is quite different from that of a startup. They are typically hired by a board of directors and must work in a more structured, predictable environment with a stable focus on growth and sustainability. This means that the responsibilities of an enterprise CEO have a different focus.
Enterprise organizations typically operate on a larger, more structured scale. This environment typically looks like:
- Serving a diverse customer base with a wide range of products or services.
- Intricate hierarchies with distinct reporting orders.
- Comprehensive IT infrastructures.
- Focus on maintaining and expanding market share.
- Global market presence.
- Legacy systems.
- Risk mitigation and compliance.
- Long-term strategic planning.
An enterprise CEO will tackle some heavy lifting in their role. Some of the highest priorities they’ll face are:
- Financial oversight: Enterprise CEOs manage the company's financial health, including budgeting, forecasting, and financial reporting. They secure the necessary funding and investment to support growth initiatives and monitor financial performance to ensure cost efficiency.
- Shareholder relations: An enterprise CEO must place shareholder interest above their own personal business decisions to maintain funding, viability, and success.
- Strategic long-term planning: The CEO of an enterprise organization must always stay focused on what will keep the company relevant and profitable in the long term. Taking on the strategic role of determining expansion plans, choosing new products or services, and finding profitable partnerships is part of this responsibility.
What Do Enterprise Leaders Need? The Non-Negotiable Traits for an Enterprise CEO
Leading an established enterprise is a challenge that demands a distinct set of qualities. The most successful enterprise CEOs typically have the following attributes.
A strategic acumen forms the foundation for effective decision-making, growth, and long-term success in a complex and competitive business landscape. It helps a CEO define a clear vision for the enterprise, know how to best allocate resources, and mitigate risk.
Large companies are built on the backs of tried-and-true processes. A CEO (along with their management team) must put effective processes in place to achieve operational excellence. They must understand how disparate pieces work together, find and alleviate operational inefficiencies, and continuously monitor the results to be sure the processes are functioning effectively.
Delegating tasks and decision-making empowers teams, optimizes efficiency, and allows the CEO to focus on high-level strategic priorities critical for the organization's success.
Adept at Stakeholder Communication
Building relationships with shareholders, board members, and other key players requires exemplary communication skills. Describing plans, encouraging buy-in, and coming across as authentic builds trust and helps align everyone’s goals.
Expert in Change Management
Shifts in strategy or structure are inevitable, even in an established enterprise. Enterprise CEOs must be able to lead the company through them without disrupting operations.
An enterprise CEO must be able to make practical decisions based on data and the market to ensure stability and growth without abrupt course changes.
Large-Scale Reporting Mastery
A successful enterprise CEO also has the ability to translate large amounts of high-level data into workable knowledge about the company that they can then use to update shareholders and make tough (but well-informed) decisions. Using company-related metrics to tell the story of its success (or shortcomings) is where a CEO finds what they need to keep the ship afloat and steer it in the right direction.
But What Do Startup and Enterprise CEOs Have in Common?
Enterprise and startup CEOs may deal with different workloads and objectives and report to different types of people. However, being the top executive at a company, whether new or established, large or small, requires some of the same skills.
If you're hiring a CEO, look for these attributes during the recruiting and interviewing process.
Both startup and enterprise CEOs must keep their focus on the bottom line with an ROI mindset, ensuring that projects, investments, and campaigns stay directly aligned with the organization’s long-term goals.
Leadership Is In Their DNA
Many CEOs will tout a degree from a well-known business school, but they also have the natural inclination to be a leader. People listen when they talk and want to work with and for them.
Communication Comes Naturally
Every CEO needs exceptional communication skills. Whether a startup CEO is speaking with a venture capitalist or an enterprise CEO is meeting with their large executive team, framing ideas and initiatives to aid in understanding and buy-in is crucial.
From dashing off an email to publicly presenting at a roundtable or conference, the CEO should be able to establish their points and convey them clearly.
CEOs cannot be afraid to make big decisions. Indecisive leaders will miss opportunities and may cause harm to the company’s sustainability.
Resilience, Through and Through
CEOs, in any environment, must be tough to withstand the pressure, market, and economic landscapes they’re expected to handle. In addition, during business downturns or after a mishap like a product launch failure or a security breach, they must be able to pick up and move forward effectively.
Honesty, commitment, drive, and respect should be the way people describe a CEO. They must be seen as trustworthy to be successful and operate with ethical integrity. This means the CEO will set a strong ethical tone throughout the organization, promoting responsible conduct and adherence to ethical standards at all levels.
Ultimately, ethical integrity builds a culture of integrity, which is crucial for attracting and retaining top talent, forging strong relationships with partners, and securing the trust of customers and investors.
CEOs are often laser-focused on performance and metrics, but there’s one other thing that should influence their decisions, behavior, and goals: emotional intelligence.
A CEO needs to strike the right balance between EQ and metrics. This is how they instill the trust of their employees, get things done, relate to others, and everything in between. But they also need to be emotionally intelligent and understand how to relate to others.
You could have the best product or service out there, but it won’t mean much without loyal customers. Your customers should be high up on the list of focuses and priorities for any CEO.
Customers have the power to influence product decisions, branding, and the bottom line. They’re what keeps the lights on, and CEOs everywhere must keep customer wants and expectations at the top of their minds.
Find the Perfect CEO for Your Company With Hunt Club
A startup CEO and an enterprise CEO role may seem worlds apart, but both demand exceptional qualities for success. Despite their different paths, common threads of leadership, communication, resilience, and customer-centricity run through both roles.
Most importantly, every CEO shares the pursuit of maintaining a long-lasting, competitive, and successful company.
We’re here to help you find them.
Whether you’re a startup founder or a senior executive looking for a CEO, Hunt Club can help you conduct a successful CEO search. Our innovative search platform helps you identify the leaders that will best fit your company and its needs.