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What don't people understand about being CEO?

What don't people understand about being CEO?

The level of collaboration necessary, how much thought goes into hedging and the fallible nature of the position are often misunderstood, members of Protocol's Braintrust say.

Good afternoon! We tried something a little different today and asked a group of CEOs not about the field they're in but about the role they're in. In today's Braintrust, you'll find six chief executives letting us in on the parts of the job that are sometimes misunderstood. Questions or comments? Send us a note at

Michael Gronager

CEO and co-founder at Chainalysis

The position of the CEO is different for every company and every person, but the thing that I believe to be true for all CEOs, that not many people know, is the job of CEO is the most collaborative role imaginable. When many think of a CEO, they think of someone dictating orders from on high. Nothing could be further from the truth. You cannot be a good CEO if most of your time is in front of the screen or filing through reports. To really be effective, you have to fill your day with conversations, talking to as many people as possible and in as many different positions as possible. This process not only allows you to build perspective, but also helps you bring others at your organization into alignment with your vision.

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Lisa Lewin

CEO at General Assembly

Much is said about the mental and intellectual dexterity the role of CEO requires, but far less is said about the emotional dexterity the job demands. The job not only requires minute-to-minute shifting across myriad topics, issues and stakeholders, but also being able to navigate the full range of emotional needs of those stakeholders — especially in times as volatile as these. Most people want to work for leaders who recognize and see their whole selves and who help them process and sense-make what's happening around them. I try to be highly intentional about how I engage on an emotional level when working with my staff up, down and across the organization, as well as with clients, partners and other external stakeholders. Doing that well takes a lot of emotional effort — but it’s also incredibly rewarding.

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George Kurian

CEO at NetApp

One of the things people sometimes don’t realize about CEOs outside of the office is that they are human and have families, and just like many of their employees, wake up in the morning to make kids’ breakfasts, check homework, drive them to school and go to their sporting events.

It may surprise some to learn CEOs are also fallible. They make mistakes and aren’t knowledgeable on every topic. CEOs don’t know all things, and the very best ones are willing to risk the discomfort of those around them by admitting they don’t have an answer or do not know something. For new CEOs, this may prove especially challenging. While they may have the functional and operational expertise and the right track record to be chosen to lead a company, that’s not what will necessarily help them succeed in the CEO role. At times, they may also feel pressured to have the perfect answer for everything and not want to admit a gap in knowledge. However, the most authentic and trustworthy CEOs achieve success by being clear about their values and are confident enough to act on them, even when those actions aren’t fashionable and may not make everyone happy.

Finally, the CEO plays a critical role as a change agent in leading a company’s transformation efforts. With technologies like cloud and AI massively disrupting industries and driving most companies today to digitally transform their businesses, that change must be CEO-led with a clearly articulated vision for the future.

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Howie Liu

CEO and co-founder at Airtable

As CEO, you have to be an optimist and pragmatic realist at the same time. You have to believe in the best possible outcome, and have conviction that you can make it. And at the same time, you have to be honest with yourself about the very real risks you should be mitigating. Sometimes the scarier risks are the unknown ones. You can have the perfect strategy, a product road map that’s clearly defined and a go-to-market plan that makes perfect sense — but your competitive landscape could change overnight. You can’t control that. But what you can do is hedge against those kinds of risks, like investing aggressively in your product to build something that customers are not only deeply embedded with, but also love.

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Will Hayes

CEO at Lucidworks

Someone recently asked me what my favorite saying was about being a leader: Sumus semper in excretum sed alta variat. You’re always in the shit; it’s the depth that varies. As Lucidworks grows, I’m realizing that new levels of growth all bring unique challenges — basically, it doesn’t get easier. It’s not a failure to have unexpected challenges pop up; no matter what stage you’re at or how successful your business is, there’s always going to be something.

I think there's a misconception that once you've reached a leadership role, you have a lot of the answers. But a strong gut instinct and years of experience can still send you down the wrong road. In my years as CEO, I've discovered how absolutely critical it is to surround myself with other leaders that you respect, both as colleagues and humans, who are able to fill some of the knowledge gaps that you have.

Regardless of where you are in the company org chart, the work and humanity of colleagues matters. There shouldn’t be a locked ivory tower where leadership makes decisions without the consideration of the people that will be affected. We have a strong team at Lucidworks, and every function contributes to our success — so, as CEO, I don’t make decisions alone on an island. Decisions that impact the people in your org and their ability to produce their best work are the most high-stakes decisions, and I think great leaders understand that and grapple with it every day.

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Karen Peacock

CEO at Intercom

Every so often someone will say to me, “Wow, I bet you never thought that was part of your job.” The charter of a CEO is broad — you are responsible for vision and strategy, delivering for customers and shareholders, building a strong team and ensuring the right access to capital and capital allocation.

My job is different every day and is ultimately doing whatever I need to do, in alignment with our values of course, to help our customers be wildly successful and help our people and business grow across both the short and long term. Doing something that helps you in the short term but hurts you in the long term is not the way to succeed. What I do on a day-to-day basis ranges from spending time with customers to understand their needs, to spending time on new products, to being a sounding board for an up-and-coming leader for career advice. The variety is both part of the fun and a challenge — there are only 24 hours in the day, so I need to be intentional to direct time and energy on the problems and opportunities where I can make the most impact.

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See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated May 17, 2022).
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