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Growing the C-Suite – On leadership and titles in Startups

Apr 11, 2013 4 min readOpen
Photo of Joel Gascoigne
Joel Gascoigne

CEO and co-founder @ Buffer

Today is an exciting day at Buffer. We’re now a team of 11 people working full-time on the product, and we are preparing to grow the team towards 15 people fairly rapidly (our first step is to find someone to write great content for our main blog). With this growth, my co-founder Leo and I started to think about some changes to our leadership structure which would help us to be best placed to both move faster day-to-day and also have additional help with some of the higher level decisions.

I’m super excited to share the news that Sunil is now our Chief Technical Officer, and Carolyn has become our Chief Happiness Officer.

Leadership at Buffer: no title necessary

I think one of the most interesting and useful lessons of this change for myself, for everyone in the team and perhaps for anyone else growing a team is the way that Sunil and Carolyn came to have these roles within Buffer.

Neither Sunil nor Carolyn were simply handed these titles and given this responsibility, and for me, this adjustment marks a clear example of the way that I aim to approach leadership at Buffer in the long term: that leadership is something you do before you have the title. At Buffer, you don’t need permission to lead and to create your own position. Leadership comes through focusing on all of our cultural values, and most importantly to work hard on the value to “be a ‘no ego’ doer”.

In essence, what Sunil and Carolyn achieved is that they found areas that they could help Leo and myself with, which were truly valuable tasks to be completed and gradually lifted a lot of weight off both our shoulders. They became leaders of their areas and supported the rest of the team.

Sunil – now our Chief Technical Officer

In his new role, Sunil will continue to lead the engineering side of Buffer and I expect he might make some bigger changes now that this is “official”. To give some examples, Sunil might decide whether we use a new database system, which engineering positions we need to hire for, and changes to daily workflow within the team.

Carolyn – now our Chief Happiness Officer

Carolyn will now lead customer support at Buffer and we will soon look for a new Happiness Hero (Carolyn will lead that process). To give some other examples, Carolyn will likely be working to improve our customer support metrics, introduce new support channels, get developer involvement and work on the workflow between heroes.

Our commitment to happiness

An exciting part of this change and announcement for me personally is that this is a great opportunity for us to express our commitment to customer service. In fact, this is a key part of our vision for Buffer:

To be the standard for social sharing, and to set the bar for great customer service.

By bringing Carolyn into the c-level leadership team with myself as CEO, Leo as CMO and Sunil as CTO, we are showing that we place just as much importance on user happiness (and team happiness) as we do on product, marketing and technology. This, for me, is a huge milestone and it extends the gap between ourselves and most startups in terms of our focus on customer service. Of our team of 11, we have 3 full-time and 1 part-time dedicated to customer support, and we see providing great customer service experiences as a huge opportunity for us to grow loyalty (retention), trigger word-of-mouth user growth and to have fantastic insights about where we should take the product. We joke inside Buffer that most companies try to find ways to reduce their email support load while we strive to get more emails. I see every email we receive as an invaluable opportunity and privilege.

When titles make sense in a startup

It is also quite recent that I started using the CEO title, and even more recently Leo has started to use the CMO title. I think we’ve left it fairly late to start to use titles (something I’ve spoken about before), and I believe now is a great time for us to do so.

In general, I believe that most startup founders and teams use titles too early. At Buffer, I started to use the CEO title when we became 11 people and this was the point at which I felt that I started to understand what a CEO does, and that my role started to involve a lot of these activities. If I had used it earlier, it would have been a title with little value. Similarly, I believe that to use a CTO title when you’re just a couple of guys makes little sense: you’re not managing anybody and you likely have little scale.

In the last week I encouraged Leo to use the CMO title, and now I think is a great time for us to use the CTO and CHO titles for Sunil and Carolyn. Now we truly need these roles and we are in a position where having a leadership team is very beneficial.

A solid leadership team to drive us forward

Between the four of us, I think we establish a really solid foundation of leadership for us to accelerate growth of Buffer in the coming years. As part of this, both Sunil and Carolyn will be on a similar level to Leo and I, and will help us with some of the bigger team building tasks such as finding a new office, organizing company retreats, the hiring process, shaping the culture and doing 1:1s with team members.

Here’s to an awesome next phase of Buffer! If you’re curious about our structure or any of the details of this change, I’d love to hear from you.

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