What it Really Takes to Transition from Entrepreneur to CEO How do you evolve from an entrepreneur to a CEO?

By Clate Mask

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

While any entrepreneur can technically call themselves a chief executive officer (CEO), there's a marked difference between a CEO with one employee and a CEO who leads an executive team. To go from one to the other successfully, a business owner must know what it takes and be prepared to see the transition through. It's not an easy one and often takes years to complete.

If you're ready for it and hungry for that growth, what's next? How do you evolve into that role of CEO? It can be hard to identify the right time and how to make the leap. But, if you do so with intentionality, strategy and grace, you'll set your company up for long-term success. Here are some of the insights I've gleaned from my experiences of going from business owner to CEO.

Related: You're a Real CEO When Your Company Is Bigger Than Your Title

Undergoing a mindset shift

If you're at a point in your business where you're struggling to delegate or relinquish control, you're probably working too much and getting burned out. You might even be entertaining the idea of selling the business or letting your employees go because the current pace simply isn't sustainable. For many business owners, this is the exact moment when the transition toward CEO needs to begin.

Instead of giving up, there's another option: adequately staff your company with senior talent. Create an executive team that you will manage so that you can share your workload among capable, driven team members. When you realize that you alone can only take your business so far and need a team of other leaders around you, you'll experience a transformative mindset shift that's necessary along this journey.

Related: The Post-Covid Leader — How the CEO's Role Has Changed in the Past 3 Years

Emotionally disconnecting from the business

Once you realize you need others to succeed, there's a key step to take next: disconnect emotionally from the business. Of course, you still must care deeply about the business; you just need to realize you and the business are no longer one. This whole idea might sound counterintuitive, but it's important.

After all, with most entrepreneurs, your business is an enormous part of your identity. But as you begin to embrace the CEO role, you have to start sharing the business with others for it to grow. Sometimes this is literal — in terms of equity that gets distributed — while other times, it's sharing things like responsibility and key decisions. Whatever form it takes, this is a very challenging emotional shift for most business owners.

Co-Creating a vision

The most successful CEOs handle the following: 1) setting the company vision, 2) building the team to achieve the vision, and 3) attracting the resources to ensure the team has what they need to achieve the vision. What's the common denominator? The vision.

But while the CEO sets the vision, yours is no longer the only one, as it likely was when you were a solitary business owner. As you build a team of strong leaders around you, each of those individuals will have their own opinions about where the company should be headed. The CEO's role is to align your team around a shared purpose, values and mission, but all of you must create this together.

As the CEO, you do have the final say. But you need to get comfortable using that only when truly necessary, or you'll wind up alienating your team. Instead, invite in the expertise and preferences of the people you're going to rely on to help you grow the company. You can (and should) steer where you're collectively heading, but you can't have a dictatorship if the business will thrive.

Once you have your co-created vision in place, the CEO must ensure all people and processes align with it. Doing so will improve every single aspect of your company, from hiring to execution of ideas, internal culture and beyond.

Related: How to Develop a Company Vision and Values That Employees Buy Into

Execute a strategy planning method

Finally, it's your job to get everyone on your team rowing in the same direction. The best way to do this is through coordinated strategic planning processes, of which there are many. There's a company I've worked with to help me implement this in my own company, and there are others in every region geared toward every type of business.

The planning you were used to as a business owner and the rigorous strategic planning required as CEO are two different animals. There's power in getting external support to help you go from one to the other, ultimately resulting in the execution of your vision.

Entrepreneurship is a hard road, and I greatly respect all entrepreneurs. Some are content running a profitable company and keeping operations lean, while others feel called to grow their businesses and grow themselves into the CEO role. If you fall into this latter category, recognize it will take time, shift your mindset, emotionally disconnect from the business and align everything around a co-created vision. When you do all this, you'll be well on your way to a smooth transition.

Wavy Line
Clate Mask

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor


Clate Mask is the founder and CEO of Keap, a maker of sales and marketing automation software for small businesses. He also is co-author of "Conquer the Chaos: How to Grow a Successful Small Business Without Going Crazy."

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