Social media and digital journalism have turned many founder CEOs into quasi-celebrities. Around the world, thousands of people know the intimate details of Jack Dorsey’s dietary restrictions and exactly how Mark Zuckerberg and his wife are donating their money. But as these tech leaders have risen in fame, very few people have taken a step back to question if we need the CEO title to begin with.
I am a first-time CEO, and over the last 6 years of building the company, I’ve learned so much. One lesson I never would have expected was discovering just how problematic the title CEO can be. In fact, I have never felt comfortable with my CEO title — so much so that I would often introduce myself as a co-founder instead of a Chief Executive Officer.
Over the years, my role as the CEO evolved quite significantly. Initially, I wore many hats — working sales, account management, customer support, financial budgeting and even Costco runs. With early employees at the company, I was just “Yong,” not “the CEO.” But as we grew, so did my role. I had to delegate more, provide strategic direction, align the team on the mission and vision of the company. My time was spent more with the leadership team members and less with front-line employees who were the eyes and ears of the company.
Suddenly, I found myself becoming “the CEO,” not “Yong.” Just the other day, I was walking in the empty hallway, and a new employee, when he saw me, literally turned around and walked the other way. It was a fresh reminder of the disconnect I’d been feeling from the team. After this experience, I decided to take action. A few weeks ago, during our all-hands meeting, I presented to the team what being a CEO meant to me, and how I defined a CEO as a Chief Empathy Officer rather than a Chief Executive Officer.
There are three reasons why I believe straying away from the title — and the divide that comes with it — can help a company and its culture.
The CEO title sounds too detached
As founders, we’re told by advisors and investors that you should always hire people smarter than you and give them space to grow the business. While fantastic advice, this oftentimes leaves CEOs feeling or appearing detached from the day-to-day progress and company culture, especially as the company expands to new areas or brings on more team members.
The best CEOs are deeply empathetic and highly involved with company culture. Because of this, I strive to incorporate empathy into my own personal leadership style: every time a new employee joins our team, I sit down with them one-on-one to talk about their life stories and how they ended up coming to our company. Then, I share aspects of their story to the broader team so everyone in the company can get to know their latest teammate on a deeper level. We have this exercise called “I am…” where everyone writes down some of the most intimate details about themselves. We share them with the entire team. It helps open them up, understand the true meaning of courage, and connect with each other.
By shifting my title to focus more on empathy, I’m not only encouraging my company and team members to find common ground with one another, but also encouraging our entire company to empathize with what Wonoloers (our term for the workers on our platform) would experience in their daily lives. Our company requires employees to do one shift on the Wonolo platform per quarter – even my co-founders and I do it. Having this practice connects us to a larger community and roots our work in something more meaningful the day-to-day tasks. Why wouldn’t I want my title to reflect the empathy I hope to spread across our community?
Having a CEO establishes a sense of hierarchy
Another challenge with bringing smart, hard working people to lead your team is that, inevitably, the structure becomes a hierarchy. I might bring on a sharp, thoughtful head of marketing to lead and build our brand. She or he hires 5 managers, who then hire 15 more employees on their own. That pyramid automatically creates levels of power that can be challenging to wrap your mind around when you’re trying to build a platform that’s driven by empathy and equal opportunity to do good.
The “executive” in CEO is what I am most uncomfortable with. This is where the hierarchy and old-school power dynamics come into play, and leave room for company culture issues, miscommunication and more. The troubling part is, research has shown flat structures, where employees view their team as a more egalitarian structure, perform better than those who see their teams as hierarchical.
The best way I’ve found to help level the playing field is to give my CEO title away. Wonoloers on our platform are given an opportunity to submit to be a “CEO for a Day”, where they come to the Wonolo headquarters, meet the team, share their experiences and offer advice on where we can improve the experience for workers on our platform. Tina from Phoenix was the first Wonoloer to kick off the program, and we see immense value in continuing this practice to ensure it’s not just me calling the shots.
One voice means just one perspective in decision-making
The term “executive” ends up narrowing the scope of decision-making. If I was the only one calling the shots in my company, I don’t know if we’d be the same company we are today. The community we serve is incredibly diverse, with Wonoloers of all ages, all genders, all races, all backgrounds, all with different reasons for choosing Wonolo. So why should the members of our executive team all look the same or come from similar backgrounds as one another?
Having a diverse team not only gives us more empathy for the workers we serve, but it also ensures that my co-founders and I are not existing in a vacuum of company decision-making. Our experiences are our own, and the three of us each bring a unique perspective to the table when we’re deciding how to best serve our community. But why not open that discussion up to more voices with more diverse experiences? As a result, we’re able to make better choices, grow a more inclusive culture at our company and develop a product that ensures workers on our platform, regardless of gender, race or age, are paid a fair wage and given the opportunity to work where and when they want.
Making “CEO” what you want it to be
At the end of the day, it is just a title. I know my actions are a better reflection of empathy, understanding and openness to others than a title. I hold my company to a similar standard and expect them to treat one another well. But recognizing the inherent flaws in the title itself is the first step in detaching the leader role from actual leadership.
While getting rid of the title entirely might be difficult – as it was in my experience – you can still take these lessons to heart and apply them as a CEO. If you refer to yourself as something more approachable internally, maintain close relationships with your employees, create an egalitarian culture and distribute responsibility evenly among a diverse leadership team, your business and your culture will thrive.