From the June 1999 issue of Startups

Dust off the power suit. Slick your hair back helmet-head style, and add a gray streak so you appear seasoned and wise. Develop a barking tone with which to shout orders. You now have the makings of a proper CEO. Oh, wait a minute . . . You became an entrepreneur precisely to get away from stuffed-shirt CEOs.

Well, you did leave that kind of CEO behind. But if you look at the successful CEOs and entrepreneurs you respect, you'll see that being a CEO isn't a bad thing, as long as you're a good one--a CEO who's respected, self-assured, poised, a good leader and ready for any situation.

You might not think of yourself as a CEO if you have yet to hire your first employee, but now is the time to cultivate the CEO traits that make figures like Lee Iacocca, Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey dynamic, memorable and powerful.

"When you're in your basement or garage doing your start-up, that's the time to start thinking, acting and relating like a CEO," says D.A. Benton, author of Secrets of a CEO Coach: Your Personal Training Guide to Thinking Like a Leader and Acting Like a CEO (McGraw-Hill, $21.95, 800-338-3987). "If you wait until you're big enough to have all the [employees], you'll have missed maybe years of opportunity to learn and develop those skills."

While Benton says many CEO qualities are a given for entrepreneurs--like tenacity, self-confidence and continuous improvement of your skills--your appearance may still scream "first year in business" rather than "seasoned CEO." So how do you transform yourself into a powerful CEO? Develop the traits below, says Benton, and practice, practice, practice--even if it's just on your neighbor while handing out your first business card.

Think before you speak. "Because you're the boss, you can pretty much do or say what you want," Benton explains, "so it's very important that you slow down from day one. Think of the ramifications, the effect you want, and then choose your words wisely."

Be a bit theatrical. When you enter a room, you want people to notice. "As you start getting customers and investors, and the media begins to look at you, you'd better be able to look and act like a leader," Benton says. She advises you to pause after walking into a room to nonverbally announce, `I'm here.' When you shake hands, hold the grip for two seconds longer than you normally would.

Strive for modesty in public. You can be theatrical and talk about your accomplishments with pride, but don't forget to mention the people who helped you get where you are. Give credit where credit is due--to your partners, family, friends, employees, customers, investors and mentors.

Become a storyteller. Whether you're relating your latest accomplishment to a group of colleagues, explaining your business plan to venture capitalists, or publicizing your cutting-edge product to a journalist, you need to tell your story with clarity and succinctness. "The best way [to talk about your product or service] is to tell a story, paint a picture, give an analogy," says Benton. "[The story] should be the situation you faced, what you did and what resulted."

Excel at your job and be willing to lead. Most entrepreneurs are good at what they do--it's a requirement for success--but they may not know how to be leaders. "You have to learn how to get along with people, affect people, sell, influence, persuade," Benton says. "[A start-up's] employees often aren't paid much, but they're there because they love the idea and they're invested in it emotionally. They'd better feel you're supporting them and giving them credit."

How to bring out your inner CEO? Begin by looking for a mentor you can emulate--an entrepreneur, a politician, a journalist, the leader of your industry association or a local businessperson you admire. "Find people who have the good stuff," says Benton. "Watch what they do, and then discipline yourself to do the same."