What if I don’t want to be a CEO?


On not wanting to be a CEO.


Q: Am I the only designer left that doesn’t want to be CEO of their own startup someday? Do I lack ambition?

A: There’s more to the idea of ambition than wanting to be a Founder.

There is no doubt that for the past few years it has seemed a lot like everyone wants to be the founder or CEO of something. Some very high-profile and well-respected designers have switched from client-services (and some from product design) to start their own businesses or to found a startup (often using someone else’s money).

On the surface of it, this can seem like a good idea. After all, running a startup (especially in the Bay Area) looks from the outside like an exciting way to make a ton of money and to be the captain of your own ship. And who wouldn’t want to be captain of their own ship? You get to choose the course, set the speed, and make all of the decisions that are normally imposed upon you.

But the truth is that in a lot of cases that control is illusory.

This is a ship’s log. Nobody who grew up wanting to be a ship’s captain dreamed of filling these in every day.

In reality, most ships don’t go where the captain chooses — they go where the cargo is. Then they freight the cargo at the speed the market requires at the price the market will bear. That’s not to say being at the helm isn’t often enjoyable, but to be honest at times it is just a lot of work. If you’ve ever seen a ship’s log, you’ll know what I am saying.

Before the current long tech boom, I didn’t get asked this question, but I did get asked a question that was the same at its core — “Should I start my own agency?”

My answer was always the same. “Sure, as long as you’d like to swap having one boss for having 100.”

Being an owner or a founder (or a manager) comes with a lot of responsibilities and tasks that are likely 180∘ from what you thought you’d be doing when you decided you wanted to be a designer. Payroll, contracts, facilities, IT management, HR, and massaging egos that arent your own.

Your focus will no longer be the one or few projects with which you’re tasked — it will be split between myriad competing and parallel priorities. There can be significant rewards, but there are attendant risks.

One of those risks is that you may spend much less time doing design.
Is that your ambition?

Now, to the guts of your question: does not wanting to be captain of the ship mean you lack ambition? Of course not. It simply means your ambitions may lie elsewhere. This is where it comes down to you. When I worked in newspaper and magazine design, I met designers who moved up the ranks from design to management and never looked back. I also met some who looked back on the day they ‘got off the tools’ as the worst day of their professional career.

Without meeting you, I can’t divine whether or not you have ambition. But know that that the ambition to be in command of an organisation isn’t the only ambition there is. ⛵️

Ross Floate works in Melbourne in at Floate Design Partners helping clients build sustainable digital capabilities. He is running out of analogies by the day.


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