The three roles of a CXO

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In the startup world, the term “CXO” refers to all the people who are at the head of their functional area and members of the management team, whether it is finance, sales, marketing, HR or any other. function. My colleagues and I wrote a book on how to scale the CXO function and as I reread the almost complete manuscript of Boot CXO for the first time, i was struck by something: every CXO thinks their part of the business is the most important part. And they present a compelling set of arguments:

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Director of Revenue: If you don’t have an income, you don’t have a business.

Director of Business Development: If you don’t develop the ecosystem, you don’t have a business.

Marketing Director: If you don’t generate market opportunities, you don’t have a business.

Responsible for customer success: If you don’t create great customer experiences, you don’t have a business.

Human Resources Director: If you don’t recruit, train and develop the right people, you don’t have a business.

Finance director: If you don’t have money, you don’t have a business.

Chief Privacy Officer: If you don’t build privacy in the beginning, you don’t have a business.

We had a debate years ago at a Return Path board meeting about whether we were a sales-driven company or a product-driven company – and more importantly, whether we had to be one or the other. Two of our board members, whom I respect enormously, anchored the different points of view, Scott Petry, on the product side, talked about how Apple has succeeded in getting customers to camp overnight to be the first to buy the newest iThing; and Greg Sands, on the sales side, explaining how successful Oracle has been in getting the product into the hands of customers.

I took the devil’s advocate point of view in the conversation, true to our operating philosophy at Return Path, which was that HR / People was the most important function because we were a people-driven company. people.

So, who is right ? Are the best companies focused on sales, products, people, or something else? Which of the CXO’s functions is the most important? My answer is –– they’re all important, just in different ways, at different times, and in different combinations. One of the CEO’s core skills is balancing functions, knowing what leverage to pull at what time. But it’s also essential that the CXO is ready when its lever is pulled. And it comes back to the important question of what a CXO role is and why those roles can be tricky. CXOs have three main tasks that they must keep in balance at all times, although there is a clear priority in my mind of the three tasks.

CXOs are the first members of the company’s management team

They must, must, must put this team first, they must make a concerted effort to understand all the different functions, and they must cultivate their relationship with the management team and put them high on their agenda. A CXO shouldn’t show up on the team just to defend their own team, their own budget, their own direct reports, and their own issues. This concept is what we have always called the First team concept, and it is articulated very eloquently by Patrick Lencioni in several of his books, notably in The five dysfunctions of a team and The advantage. CEOs should emphasize the behavior and mindset of the first team; otherwise, a business simply cannot operate sustainably and issues will arise that will take a long time to resolve or lead to internal conflicts and policies. As members of the management team, all CXOs are accountable to each other for the success of the company as a whole and must partner with each other to achieve that success.

Here is an example where First Team made a huge impact for us at Return Path. Our most important distribution partnership was, without a doubt, Salesforce Marketing Cloud and we have spent years cultivating close ties with the product team, various sales organizations and the management team. Our senior leadership (sales, business development) cemented clear rules of engagement on how our sales reps should handle transactions impacting Salesforce customers. But months after starting the partnership, a sales representative circumvented the rules of engagement and struck a deal that negatively impacted our partner. As soon as we became aware of this dishonest case, we had an internal call between the CRO, the US sales manager, and the CBDO who without hesitation fired the sales rep. You might think they had some explaining to do with the rest of the leadership team, but the leadership team was 100% aligned. Why? Because the team had a high degree of trust and because the CRO and the CBDO followed this obvious lack of trust from the salesperson. Without a first-team approach, this situation could easily have spiraled out of control and mired the management team in conflict.

CXOs are also at the head of their respective functional departments

A CXO should carry their team’s flag and proudly wave it throughout the organization, especially when working with their teams. They are the functional role model, mentor and decision maker for members of their functional team. To be an effective leader, he must be The Quintessential X (salesperson, engineer, marketer, etc.). While it is easy to carry your office flag when things are going well, a CXO should also carry it when things are not going well. Our Chief Product Officer at Return Path was at the center of a storm that held back the entire company: we had too much technical debt and couldn’t innovate, let alone meet the current demand for our products. He never hesitated, never threw anyone under the bus, but took full responsibility for the problem and knocked it over. This is what a CXO must do.

Finally, CXOs are business leaders

They are role models for the company’s values. They should always be alert to the things that are going right or wrong around them and look for the things that need attention or recognition. Are there any situations that need to be appeased? Guests sitting unattended in the office lobby? Delivery people who need a signed check and need a tip? A CXO has to step in and help in all kinds of ways beyond their title … even putting the new water bottle on the water cooler. You got the idea. Company executives have the real and moral authority to come out of their departments and handle things as they should be handled, regardless of the employees involved. A perspective of entitlement, or of not doing things that are “below” the CXO level, will dramatically lower your employees’ motivation and engagement, as well as engagement levels.


While most CXOs know their role is to lead their function, this narrow view of what the job entails can end up hurting a business. A CXO has three roles: to fully engage with the management team, to lead their function through good times and bad, and to step out of their title and be a business leader.

About the Author

Matt blumberg is currently CEO of Bolster, an executive on-demand market co-founded with colleagues in 2020. Prior to that, Matt co-founded and was CEO of Return Path, an email marketing company he helped grow until its acquisition in 2019. His first book. Startup CEO, provides advice and guidance to new CEOs on building a sustainable business while his second book, Startup CXO, helps every functional leader grow and grow their team. Matt’s blog can be found at and a list of useful books for entrepreneurs to

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