When I was a kid I loved to read. During the few years where I was home-schooled, it wasn't unusual for my parents to take me to the library and let me wander around for a couple hours before returning with a stack of books that went up almost to my waist. As I got older, reading books shifted to skimming readings for class, devouring news articles and consuming social media to the point where, embarrassingly enough, I hadn't picked up a full book and read it all the way through in several years. When I talked to my dad about how I thought it was important to practice reading and to treat it like going to the gym, he underscored that it was also important to practice writing. So, here is my "writing gym" where I am trying to get some reps in for my writing muscles. If you have any feedback, please let me know!
What does a CEO actually do?
I was recently scrolling through Instagram reels when an interesting podcast interview began to play. My algorithm is built such that I get a decent bit of "hustle" content and although a lot of it is filled with bunk "Here's how to get rich on real estate" videos, occasionally some nuggets of wisdom find their way onto my screen. In this case, I was watching Pillpack founder TJ Parker on the Logan Bartlett Show as he explained how he envisioned the role of CEO:
“Now when I think about what the job of a CEO is, it's to set the vision and have a really clear perspective on what you're doing. It's to capitalize the business which is incredibly important. Mine is to be the external voice of the business - those things are obvious, I think you have to be world class at those, no one else in the company can do those things. And then internally, like, for me it was finding the right exec team, putting them in place, and making sure they got along, rather than trying to make day-to-day decisions at a granular level or even like a relatively strategic level. It was way more productive to find great people that could do that themselves with a lot of autonomy than it was for me to try to dive in and make those decisions.”
This drove the question into me: what actually are the key responsibilities and attitudes of an effective CEO? I began building out a framework, and then started comparing notes. It just so happened that I was hearing from several CEOs as guest speakers in a variety of my classes at both the law and business schools and so I paid close attention to what they said about leadership. I've shared some of their thoughts here (paraphrased for clarity).
One CEO who was running a startup in the consumer products space had this to share:
It was critical to shape the vision and strategy, and to bring money into the company. At first I had to do everything because it was a small company, but to be honest, I suck at operations. I needed to hire good people which allowed me to fire myself from the roles I'm bad at. On top of that, it was important for me to identify all the things that make our company successful, segment those roles, and build the roles that solve for each one of the problems that will allow us to be successful. This wasn't arbitrary hiring, but being thoughtful about what are the target milestones and thinking who are the people I need to onboard to move in that direction.
Another CEO, the founder of a Fortune 100 company turned venture capitalist, built his message around the following:
Leadership is about staying true to yourself and getting the best out of your people. As a leader, ask yourself the questions: "What do you stand for and why should anyone follow you?" Don't take it for granted that people will follow you because you have a good title, prestigious degrees, or make money. Why should anyone trust you? I want to surround myself with people that are more able than me. Finding spikey people who have amazing talent and joining them together allows you to make 2+2+2=7. One thing that allowed me to succeed has been having the ability to recognizer superb talent around me and get them to work together. Surround yourself with stars. People don't work for you because you're the cleverest. People want to work with you because of what you can do to help them and grow them. It's often not about money. It's about answering the questions for them, "How can you help me grow? How do you help me develop?" You ultimately want to be customer-centric not just in your products, but also when interacting with the people you hire and manage.
In my own life, I have been exploring and applying styles of leadership in several of my organizations, but primarily in my startup and nonprofit. Acting as CEO and President, respectively, I have had to manage teams, coordinate strategy, capitalize / attempt to fundraise, etc. And I have been trying to figure out how to optimize my efforts to empower these entities to achieve their ultimate visions.
In my non-profit, which is a national organization designed to partner with and support Korean American student associations at colleges around the country, we have three primary departments: External Affairs, Internal Affairs, and Public Affairs. These are supported by an administrative team composed of myself, the Vice President, and Treasurer (think CEO, COO, and CFO).
The first windfall for the organization was bringing on my Vice President / COO - a West Point alum and current military officer - and someone who supplemented me in areas where I fall short. I'm into vision setting, culture building, and high-level strategy. He's an expert at developing operational infrastructure and implementing on a day-to-day level. I am great at getting people together in a room around a shared mission. He excels at creating the systems through which they can identify and accomplish critical tasks. Working with him has really shown me the power of effective partnerships and proven to me the benefit of bringing on team-members who have comparative advantages (see my Building Teams post below). And it was he who came up with idea to add some structure to the organization through the key departments. We had been operating for two years in kind of a flat system with tasks delegated ad hoc when he came in and asked the simple question: Why don't we have specific roles and responsibilities? When we realized we needed this, we were off to the races.
The second windfall, or key moment that I am currently evaluating, actually took place in the last few weeks. We had been meeting with the Department Directors weekly to review their ongoing tasks, quarterly goals, and standing action items and questions - but I was unhappy with the progress. I didn't feel like the team was taking initiative and that I was needing to micromanage and pull teeth to get stuff done. So I decided to sit down one-on-one with these Directors and collect information about what was going on. When I heard from the Director of External Affairs that his team had mentioned to him they were being overloaded with administrative work that they didn't feel added value and it left them demoralized I was shocked. Of course I didn't want our team-members to be wasting their time on that clerical work - it would be helpful down the line but it wasn't mission critical compared to some of the other tasks that were assigned to the department. The External Affairs Department was tasked with recruiting schools, non-profit partners, and corporate sponsors - without them, we wouldn't have a reason to exist.
I took a pause on the call and thought about how I could align our team on this. After some silence, I asked the Director, "What do you think your job is?" He looked a little confused so I continued with a tired smile, "It's not a trick question, what do you think you are responsible for?" He sat and thought for a while before beginning to list it out some of the tasks that I had assigned to him and his team. This was where I realized I had made a big mistake within our organization. I stopped him - "Those are all things that need to get done in your department. But at the big level - your job is to accomplish the mission of your department with the assets that you have. However you do that, it's up to you. You have total ownership as Director to utilize your team as you see fit. It's not my job to tell your team what to do. But you need to know what you're solving for." As we sat and brainstormed about what exactly the mission of the External Affairs Department was, we came to the sentence: "Building, developing, and maintaining critical partnerships." We both felt good about it, but I knew I needed to recalibrate away from the status quo of over-managing. I left with the final thought: "My job is not to come up with the solution. My job is to remove roadblocks to the solution you identify to accomplish the mission."
I'm still trying to figure out if that was the right call / framing. A good mentor told me that it's not just the locker-room speech, it's also the day-to-day implementation and support that make implementing that kind of ownership system possible. I know it'll take a lot of work on my part to fill the role in the right way - and I would appreciate any advice you might have on this (so shoot me an email if you have any wisdom to spare).
But circling back to the question that started this whole thing: what actually are the key responsibilities and attitudes of an effective CEO? So far, my thoughts are centered around the following:
Capitalize the Business: The CEO must ensure that the business has the necessary working capital to continuously operate. This can come from external funding (debt, outside investment, non-dilutive funding), or through the management of operational, financial, or investment cash flows in conjunction with the company's balance sheet.
Coordinate the Team: Effective CEOs will hire talent aligned with the 5 C's (detailed below) and create operational structures such that the team members are able to effectively identify their target objectives and accomplish them. Being a coordinator here seems similar to an orchestra conductor (which ties into the next point).
Develop the Company's Competitive Strategy: CEOs must be able to guide the company to survive the quarter, but also build towards a bigger vision within the competitive landscape, leveraging the talents of the team to solve critical problems.
Effectively Communicate Internally and Externally: As the internal and external face of the company, strong CEOs will be able to express the vision, mission, and values of the company in an understandable and persuasive manner. Internally, they build team alignment and contribute to the company culture. Externally, they build public understanding of the company and shape the company's brand.
What do you think?
Building Teams: The 5 C's
I've always enjoyed designing processes and systems. At the first meeting of my business school learning team, a semi-mandatory assigned study group, I forced us to sit down and talk about what our goals were. Not in a deep personal sense, but more explicitly what we hoped to get out of the learning team itself. What followed was an intense two-hour meeting where folks openly, and sometimes bluntly, shared what they hoped to get out of their MBA and this study group. For some, our team was an opportunity to make friends and deep relationships, for others they just wanted help with the homework. By level-setting and communicating up front what we hoped to achieve, we were able to establish team norms and develop reasonable expectations along with an efficient and fair work allocation process. Sitting down and creating a space where we could figure out how we could best operate as a team was both a fun and fulfilling experience for me. And the team ultimately came together and did an incredible job at achieving our agreed-upon goals.
Looking back on this experience in working with my learning team, I was reminded of my first serious internship. I was working directly under the CEO of a non-profit that operated very much like a startup. Over the course of the summer, I had observed as the CEO had managed difficult personalities and leveraged members of his teams to effectively move the ball forward on achieving key objectives. As I sat back and tried to make sense of the decisions he had made, I began imagining myself in his position and wrote in my notebook what I thought were the three most important characteristics a person had to have when considering adding them to a team: care, competence, and comparative advantages.
1. Care: Does this person care about their job, the work they do, and the people around them?
2. Competence: Is this person qualified to do the job they have been assigned? Do they possess the proper skills needed to succeed (or to learn how to succeed)?
3. Comparative Advantages: Does this person bring unique skills and perspectives to the team?
Since that initial list I've added two additional characteristics: curiosity, and compatibility. The first was inspired by a lecture from Doug Lebda, a Darden alum and the founder of LendingTree (whose team criteria were: will, skill, and deliver). The second came from my Leading Teams class taught by Gabe Adams.
4. Curiosity: Is this person a life-long learner? Are they interested in developing themselves and exploring new and interesting concepts and skills?
5. Compatibility / Cooperation: Does this person get along well with the existing team? Can they "play well with others" and collaboratively support the team in achieving its overarching objectives? Can they bring the team together around a vision and lead/follow when necessary?
Most people will not meet all five categories. And certain categories are easier to develop than others. For example, a young student or employee might care a lot, have curiosity, and be compatible with a team, but due to their inexperience they may lack task-specific competence or comparative advantages. This can be overcome with training and development support. Noting the difficulty of finding superstar team-members, another guest speaker at Darden had this to say: "Most of the time, you will not be working with a team of A players. The best managers learn how to get the best they can out of their B and C players."
The issue with lists like these is that they always tend to grow (or you forget to include something because it didn't start with the right letter). However, I'm confident that if you find someone that matches all five C's that they would be a great addition to a team. Ultimately, being caring, competent, recognizing one's comparative advantages, having compatibility with one's teammates, and being curious can help foster a positive team dynamic and improve the chances of achieving the team's objectives.
Project Based Networking
"You should write a book." It's not something a lot of 20-year-olds hear - and probably for good reason. Most 20-somethings don't really know enough about anything to be able to create a compelling multi-hundred page piece of writing. But that didn't dissuade my college professor in my sophomore year from standing in front of the class and telling us exactly that. His thesis was pretty simple: even though we weren't exactly experts, we could interview several of them and compile their wisdom in one convenient source. Our value add to the readers was effective synthesis and analysis of experts' knowledge following our interviews with them. It capitalized on the one resource that we had in spades as students - free time. That and the unique access that students can have to very "important" people - when you email someone and say: "I'm a college kid writing a book, and would like to interview you as an expert in the field," it opens a surprising number of doors. People like to feel like they're helping students, but they also like the idea that the networking call that they're taking is more than just throwing advice at a kid and hoping that they actually find it useful.
The value to us as writers was two-fold: at the end of the project, you're left with an actual product that you created and a new network of experts that you (hopefully) admire, learned from, and built a connection with.
I've taken that idea and applied it to many different projects in my life. When I knew I wanted to learn more about Asian American political organizing, I started a weekly discussion group and used it as a tool to invite speakers who were established professionals in the space. That grew into Young Asian Pacific American Leaders and led to me moderating a conversation with two of my heroes - Representatives Young Kim and Michelle Steel. This was also part of the impetus behind the Korean American Student Internships Database which I worked on in the Spring of 2019. I had created this resource originally to help with my own internship hunt, but realized that once I had a job - why not share it? When I sought to expand it, I was able to speak with a ton of great business leaders and mentors who helped me collect more resources to add and ultimately share with Korean college students. This was the seed that then grew into the National Korean Student Alliance - which is a project I'm still working on to this day!
The beauty of project based networking is that you not only get the chance to engage with leaders and experts you might not have had access to otherwise, you're also left with something you created that hopefully brings value into the world. Whether that's a book, a discussion group, a blog, a podcast, or anything else, it feels good to go out and create. In a time where we are obsessed with consumption, including of our mentors' time - to create sets you apart, and provides fulfillment. Additionally, the creation can continue to live on and have value long after you first finished it. I know of friends who still make some money from their books off of Amazon sales, or who used it to gain entry into an industry that became an important part of their career. Folks I met through YAPAL have gone on to become close personal friends. The NKSA is still working to help Korean college students (and giving me more writing fodder as we struggle to build an effective and meaningfully impactful organization).
I never ended up publishing my manuscript - it wasn't of a quality that I felt comfortable publicly releasing and attaching my name to, especially because it was political in nature (and probably a little immature to be honest). My college friends to this day like to jokingly ask "Has your book come out yet?" I'm happy to grin and bear it, because while I didn't end that class with a book, I did leave with a tool that I still use to create and to learn from and engage with important people in my life.
We all have role models in our lives. For many it’s an older family member, former boss, or professor. These role models often have proven their credibility because of the success they’ve found in their personal or professional lives. But, due to the nature of having proven their success, they are often much older. They were in school or applied for their first job years, if not decades, ago.
Sustainable Improvement Processes (aka Living a Good Life)
In my fourth quarter at Darden I gathered a small crew of "willing" classmates for weekly meetings where we would brainstorm and gut-check each other with ideas about our careers and support each other as we began our professional careers. We called ourselves the "Business Accountability Group" aka BAG.
The meetings were structured such that each week a new member would be responsible for determining the topic and format of the discussion of the day. As the weeks went on we shared about our long-term visions for our careers, analyzed our strengths and weaknesses, and traded tips and tricks about how to best manage both personal and professional relationships. I am writing this after being inspired by one of those meetings where the structure, set by a classmate named Nick, was as follows: each person was to present their five- and ten-year goals and the other members were supposed to try to poke holes in the plan in order to find weaknesses or areas for development. I watched and participated as we went around the room - impressed by the goals my friends had set for themselves and happy to try to help them figure out if they had left any blind spots that would be helpful to address.
When it was my turn I had to say, "Sorry guys, but I don't really have any set goals for the next five to ten years." The words felt strange coming out of my mouth, because if you know me at all, you know that for a long time I was obsessed with setting goals and using those as a tool to promote my personal development. As I was thinking about the prompt though, I realized that while my brain had been filled with goals for a long time -- for the first time in my life, it was fairly empty. And I was comfortable with that.
Instead of prioritizing setting goals (which are still an important tool), my new theory is that it is more important to focus on process implementation. Every time a speaker has come into class at Darden this year, my question from the audience was the same, "What daily habits do you have that you think contributed to your success?" I firmly believe that how we spend our time and who we spend it with shapes who we are. The small habits that make up your daily routine will add up over the course of your life to build you into the person you become. And so instead of saying "I want job x" or "I want to have y thing" I think it would be interesting to think about what kind of life we want to live, and what habits we need to implement in our daily life to achieve that state of being. The fruits will follow if you plant well.
When I first developed my personal mindfulness exercise it began by having you list out your goals in ten key categories: physical health, mental health, spiritual health, intellectual curiosity, professional development, social relationships, community engagement, financial stability, creativity, and adventure. I'm sure there are more categories that would be good to include, or that some of these categories could be bundled up. But I'm also confident that if you can be growing in all ten of these categories that life is going pretty well. Obviously, in life there are seasons where some categories will take precedence over others. But I posit that a balance across these categories can leave a person with fulfillment. Now, instead of just writing down goals for each of these categories, I want to also implement some processes that allow me to sustainably improve in each of the ten areas ("Sustainable Improvement Processes" - see what I did there?) . To provide an example, a goal is: I want to lose weight. A SIP is: I will go on a 30-minute walk five times a week. Processes dive deeper into actual implementation of behavior that achieves goals.
What really drove this home for me was sitting in that room with my classmates and sharing these thoughts when it hit me - what I'm doing right now is a SIP. By gathering a group of my friends who I respected and wanted to develop a relationship with in a room every week, I had created a process through which I could improve social relationships that were important to me, provide energy and attention to my professional development, and engage in conversations that inspired further intellectual curiosity. And I want to be thoughtful about the processes I am building in my life - because frankly, whether you want to or not, you are building out the processes which will shape your approach to life. I personally like the idea of building out processes because that's just how my brain interacts with the world. I also want to be cautious of over-analyzing and structuring things to death. The world also needs to exist in creative, unplanned spaces. But even though I like to identify and build out frameworks for all the aspects of my life, it might not be that way for you and that's ok.
That night, I came across an interesting video from Mark Manson (language warning), who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***, where he talks about the concept of self-help. Here are some key excerpts:
"There's nothing new in self-help... Most of the advice that we're consuming when we buy these books, whether it's on how to be more compassionate, less anxious, more humble and grounded, more productive, more honest, and vulnerable. These things have been covered for thousands of f****** years from Buddha and Jesus, to Plato and Seneca, to Adam Smith and Benjamin f***** Franklin. Pretty much nothing you find on a self-help shelf is new. And that's fine because what does change, and what does matter is the packaging... Self help ideas are simple but difficult. I.e. they are easy to understand, but really f***** difficult to actually go do... This is where the packaging comes in. The way ideas are packaged can do a lot to alleviate the emotional difficulty of these problems in the short run."
So for me, the way I'm packaging and then internalizing (and hopefully externalizing) the wisdom and lessons that I've learned through my faith, my family, and my education, is through these Sustainable Improvement Processes. Over the course of this summer, I hope to explore each of category I identified in my first mindfulness exercise and develop SIPs in each area. And hopefully this will help me lead a good life.
Growing through Pivots
Social / Civic Entrepreneurship
The Theory of the Conscious Guess
Wanting to be Heard
Consumer Surplus Pricing