Over the next few months, I (Immad Akhund, CEO of Mercury), will share my stories, learnings, and tips for other leaders based on what has worked for me. I started my entrepreneurial journey 16 years ago as a recently graduated engineer and have had to learn all the “CEO” lessons the hard way — often feeling like I was making it up as I go. How one leads as a CEO is extremely dependent on any number of factors, like your style, your company, your stage, or your industry. Rather than taking these ideas as ones to copy verbatim, take them as food for thought — one example to learn from amongst the many.
In the last column, I talked about the importance of building a culture rooted in transparency. This week, I dig into how leaders can avoid being a bottleneck, and why it’s critical to progress.
As CEOs, our role is to steer the ship without stifling its momentum. Of course, in the early days, you will often be an individual contributor and part of the critical path to progress. Still, even then, it’s important to try to remove yourself as the bottleneck on as much of the process as possible. This becomes especially important as your company scales — you can’t cling to the same level of control, as it turns you into a single point of failure for your company’s success.
When I think about how to avoid being a bottleneck, I'm referring to creating a culture where individuals and teams can operate independently and have the autonomy to make decisions and execute tasks without the constant need for oversight. Independent teams are agile, efficient, and adaptable. They are not reliant on a single point of approval, meaning work can progress without waiting for my sign-off at every step. This independence fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility among team members, fueling their motivation to achieve collective goals.
I think, ultimately, there are two ways to be a bottleneck: being the sole individual with a particular skill, or requiring your approval on everything to move it forward — like needing to see every design or every line of code. (In many cases, you might find that as a CEO, even if you don’t feel the need to approve everything, the team might still think they need your approval.) At Mercury, it was important to me, even at a really early stage, that we eliminate the possibility of both scenarios. We very early on hired individuals in every skill set so that there wasn’t anything where I was the only person who could do it, with the exception of infrequent but important strategic tasks like fundraising or key exec hiring. The idea is that you want to create workflows where, if you’re not around — perhaps because you’re out fundraising or you’re taking a well-deserved vacation — things can continue to move along without you. And because of how we’ve built and structured our company, we’re in a place now where I can comfortably remove myself from a lot of the decisions that other CEOs or leaders tend to be bottlenecks for — things like signing off with a new vendor, approving designs, or hiring for non-leadership roles.
None of that is to say that I’m not actively contributing to the work being done. But it has created a system where my role is more akin to that of an accelerator rather than a facilitator. As a CEO, you can apply pressure and improve things in a way that accelerates progress. In a structure where you’re a bottleneck, progress essentially flatlines when you’re not around or available. But in a system where you’re not a bottleneck, your progress continues on an upward trajectory even without you there, but the curve of that trajectory steepens when you are.
So, how do you let your teams flourish without standing in the way of progress? The first step is learning to delegate. As a leader, it’s important to understand and embrace the idea that you don’t have to do it all, and in fact, you aren’t even the best person to do most things. That’s the beauty of growth — you can move out of a role where you’re a hands-on doer of everything and instead take on enabling and empowering effective teams. Entrusting tasks to individuals with the expertise and passion to excel in their roles allows you to reduce your workload while leaving things in capable hands.
The bedrock of delegation is trust, and it’s important to hire individuals and teams that you feel confident in — but that doesn’t mean you need to have a company full of seasoned experts to avoid a bottleneck situation. The reality as a CEO of a startup is that you won’t always have the luxury of hiring the most experienced people with wildly impressive resumes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t hire people with incredible talent. I’ve found that when you hire individuals with good first-principle thinking and entrust them with responsibility, they more often than not step up to it. The number of things people can’t do is probably smaller than you think. As a rule of thumb, I try to default to trusting my team’s ability to execute with precision and make sound decisions — and their judgment in recognizing a situation that calls for my input and seeking it out as needed.
Of course, simply hiring a great team isn’t a guaranteed way to ensure that things go perfectly every time. What we’ve found at Mercury is that process is a huge part of removing potential bottlenecks while ensuring that work is completed swiftly and in accordance with our very high quality bar. For example, we follow a DACI system for projects, whereby each project, at the onset, has a clear driver and approver, as well as a clear list of active contributors and people who should be kept informed. This has been one of the simplest ways to avoid a situation where I (or anybody, for that matter) become an unnecessary bottleneck because it eliminates the question of whether or not my approval is needed to move forward or complete that project.
Another process-related solution we’ve found to avoid bottleneck situations is that we created a Slack channel called #pre-shipped, which could allow teams to preview the features they were working on and source feedback outside of the immediate people working on it. It helps break down silos and create more transparency across the org. It allows me as a leader to feel confident knowing that everyone has visibility into the work being done and can provide feedback or flag concerns openly.
And even in this case, we’re creating a process where feedback isn’t a roadblock but rather a catalyst for progress. Because I think while one way to avoid being a bottleneck is to create processes, processes can be another way to create bottlenecks. So, you have to be careful about how you construct any process.
Of course, there are always instances where a project or task is particularly important or strategic, and in those cases, it often makes sense for me to be involved. Here, the key to not being a bottleneck is remembering that your role as a leader is to help guide an overarching direction and ground decision-making in the right considerations. So, even while I might be prone to nitpick (which I certainly do a lot), I am mindful not to let my nitpicks halt progress. Instead, I equip my team with the right framework to use their expertise to make decisions with the proper context without getting constantly derailed by my feedback.
That’s a critical distinction between a manager and a leader, I think. As CEOs, we shouldn’t think of ourselves as managers. Managers become bottlenecks very quickly because managers are closer to the work, and often, people need to go through their managers to get things done. As a leader, you’re simply a guiding force for many independent people — providing direction but also giving them the space to move forward with things without you. All managers should also try to be leaders and think intentionally about how they can avoid being bottlenecks to their team. This is especially true for managers who are higher up in an organization.
The real learning here is that if you aren’t paying close attention to what you do at the company and how you spend your time as a CEO, you can quickly become the bottleneck on tasks. Taking a thoughtful look at the processes in your company and how you spend your time should help you understand and optimize on not being the bottleneck. Your job as a CEO is not to control everything but to build and lead a team that can produce incredible results without your direct input on every little thing.
Immad Akhund is the co-founder and CEO of Mercury.