Be nice to yourself…

Danielle George , whispered to me as she handed out the results of my follow up survey for a leadership program…. To me the proof that a years work on personal stuff had made a difference.  And despite all the teaching about focusing on the process, resetting your mindset, it being more about me than what others thought….  It still mattered and I was still going to be my harshest critic…. she was of course right. 🙂

Here now as a CEO of of small company, almost a year later. I’ve circled back.

There’s been plenty written about it, but it is still subterranean… only half acknowledged despite the efforts of some.

expectations of greatness at all times, and dismissal of anyone not up to scratch is the norm.

Running any business is bloody tough.  For the leaders you have to give a lot of yourself. Not just in hours, but in energy, mindshare, empathy, anxiety, family time, cash, sleep… whatever.  Often it is bloody hard to know how you are doing besides the obvious revenue and cashflow….I describe it as a knife fight, and every day is a battle.

The reality is not many people do this,  when you do catch up with a peer its a relief.  I meet one last week and the first words out of his mouth were ” are you doing ok?”  He gets it… thanks a million Vaughan for that. It meant a lot.

So while you are hard charging, fighting every battle and trying not to take it personal, what ever the score card says….. Be nice to yourself….

Go Big

“all progress is the work of unreasonable men”

Being unreasonable is different for everyone, but it has one thing in common, you have to push hard, way beyond where you think you can get to.

I was reminded again about this need to push hard by an old university friend of mine.  He had a pretty life changing injury event,  while he was recovering decided that an extra-ordinary life was what he wanted. So he set out to do something massive for him – to climb Mount Everest. He had to rehab and then train for years to get there. It took him two goes but he got finally got there, something that required him to push himself hugely.

Right now he is literally attempting to get from Singapore to his hometown of Taranaki New Zealand… 12000 km’s all by human power. He’s literally Rowing and Cycling the whole way  (read about it here if you are interested ) .  I find Grant’s exploits very inspirational. It reminds me that to do great things, you have to push yourself, normally beyond what stops other people….


Now what?

An interesting thing happened after 5 months, the role changed.  All the fire fighting and ‘fixing’ was largely done…. now what?

Taking stock and noticing this change was the first thing.

Then thinking through what next, like actually WHAT DOES THIS COMPANY NEED ME TO DO …NOW.

So i moved focus to channel development, looking for new growth avenues.

So I started looking at the roadmap and asking where next?

And then over the Christmas break I asked myself, what am I going to do differently this year, what will I change…. how will improve my leadership.

Another change , more vision, more leadership, more challenge…what is the big growth option(s) and how do we set ourselves up to make the most of them

Keeping score …or running the show

When I was at university, I undertook a project for a privately owned company. On the day I was to present the findings, I was invited into the companies boardroom.  The founder and owner was very traditional, so was sitting at the head of the table running the meeting with his exec members sitting almost in rank order around the table . At one stage they were discussing the strategy of the business and where to invest.  At this point, the head accountant started to speak up and question the investment and outline all the financial things that needed to be thought through.

The chairman listened intently, and then said these words  “thank you, but please  remember that you are here just to keep score”…..

Reflecting on the key differences in my current role in a startup vs the roles I had in large companies, I am struck by the stark differences in control the finance team has.

In a small company, you never hear the words “I need to check with Finance”.  There’s no large forecasting and compliance overhead.  The business is focused on doing good things for customers, building good products and navigating its way toward success. Finance is partner in the decision making process, but definitely secondary to executing on the business plan.

In large business this is largely lost, finance has enormous control and I would argue that the business plan is actually the financial plan.

Have a think about your company and which situation you are in.

1 month in

I took a new role as the CEO of a start up this month.  And I wanted to capture my experiences and insights.

The move happened really quickly and in fairness I didn’t undertake a massive amount of diligence on the role.  I spoke with some key customers and channel partners and jumped….I’ve had an itch to get into start up land for many years, and after an intensive year of leadership development and insight, i’d set myself a goal of getting my next leadership role, something different, something that stretched me, something outside of the current industry…. so this was perfect.

It’s been an great journey. Interesting, challenging, educational and scary all in one.

Some of the following might be laughable, but its all genuine.

  1. I started by reading as many post like this as i could, what should a new CEO do.
  2. I have spent the first month largely listening to staff, customers, partners and coming to grips with the challenges.  I tried very had not to dive into the product or fixing stuff immediately
  3. Focus. kind of a yeah right moment for a small start up, but even in the 4 weeks i’ve managed to focus on a few key issues and make some start toward addressing. I had to fix some stuff immediately, some commercial arrangements dictated immediate intervention.  Not knowing the history, future or way forward too well made this some of the most interesting wing it type positioning i’ve ever engaged in.
  4. Breath – or some sort of mantra about enjoying the ride has been hugely beneficial in dealing with the stress of it all  – HT Nic Kennedy for that one.
  5. Cashflow, when you work in a mature business your whole career, you worry about EBITDA etc… start ups, not so much…..
  6. Transference – the business and commercial skills are transferable between large and small.  The key for me is to take what I know and make new company ready… I don’t want the start up to become the big company.  I do want some of the disciplines in place
  7. Disciplines – they hardly exist yet everyone is asking for them.  If you know them you can fix things very quickly and equally get a lot of respect
  8. Sales matter, cutting costs is easy.  Growing sales is really hard.  If you have any doubts about the sales capability of your team, address that quickly
  9. Momentum – most people want to know where they are going and how what they do matters…if you can get them to see a direction you can turn things … turning them around (hockey sticks) is very hard though…  little nudges of course are easier to implement
  10. I reverted to type, when i got stressed out i reverted to my default archetype and styles. No surprises, but even though I knew it would happen, it happened.  Fortunately I still have a great coach who’s helping me get back on course to be the leader I want to be
  11. Sucked onto the dance floor.  My belief is that one of the key tenants of a great leader is that they stay on the balcony, and lead, not get involved in the action per se, more orchestrate the action. But you have to work with what you have when you walk into a business, and i’ve spent the last few weeks convincing people to do their jobs and not defer to me. That and a fairly decent serve from my coach about focus… So now i’m trying harder to work on the business not in it.
  12. Networking.  I’ve been blown away by the generosity and willingness of folks to give me some time, tell me how what they’ve learnt and know and share things that can make our business better.  Vaughan Rowsell, Josh Robb, Nic Kennedy, Roz Mackay, Struan Abernathy, Jo Allison. Many many thanks
  13. CEO is a lonely gig.  I knew that, but in a purely theoretical way.  I’m not huge into titles and the like. But it does matter to some folks.  One of the folks above said you are always on stage, in the spot light…and its true. You can’t have off moments, can’t relapse and be one of the employees and you sure can’t shirk the final calls…and that can be very lonely.
  14. Boards – interesting process and i can see the value of a great chairman. That relationship with the chairman is clearly important, but they don’t tell you how important
  15. Focus more on me. When I get passionate and involved the companies problems become mine, i trade off exercise and family time against work… I crossed some lines.  Gabrielle Dolan’s got a great exercise in her book called levelling up.  Basically you note down what is non negotiable when you start. And then its not a decision that can be made, so there’s no temptation
  16. Partners matter, i’ve had great support from my partner. She’s got a lot of small business experience, but equally is great at just listening to me ramble through a problem…. you also need someone to pump your tyres every now and then…


We’ve lost our way…

I read with despair an analysis by a leading research house, advising institutional investors, CEO’s and small share holders alike..

However XXXX company continues to highlight its desire to expand into [MARKET]  which we view as maintaining an elevated level of risk and we would prefer to return its excess capital to shareholders.

So basically don’t invest in the companies future, don’t build new stuff, don’t get into new markets, don’t grow, instead give back to your shareholders…

This focus on shareholders return is killing our companies. CEOs have gotten the message: The point of running a company was to keep the share price high ..and apparently the analysts happy.

CEOs and their top managers have massive incentives to focus most of their attentions on the expectations market, rather than the real job of running the company producing real products and services.

But its not sustainable. This is the type of thinking that sees the demise of once great companies like Kodak and Sony and the perversion of business practice like share buy backs or worse, corrupt practices

I agree that share holders should be repaid. But not at the expense of the corporation itself.

sadly, … the buybacks are simply a waste of money …. and ultimately come at the cost of growth and innovation.

And that’s the greatest cost of this short sighted version of capitalism that has taken hold.  Growth and Innovation.  Peter Druckers, was on the right track with his maxim

“the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.”

And he’s not alone, Inamori from Kyocera is actively resisting this new capitalism… lets hope more do

Crossing lines

When I was a post grad, they had to cancel the ethics in marketing class, the reason – not enough interest in the class. We were a high performing group. We also knew right from wrong.  The integrity of that class was never in question.

Today I see a business world where the results seem to matter more than how you get them. Netflix is supporting its net neurtrality agenda by contriving situations to make to highlight the issue.  Uber has a littany of ethical issues. Big oil, big sugar, big drug… all of them have lost their way. It’s all way to short term.  [disclosure:I love Uber and Netflix services, I question their ethics]

This isn’t what gets me passionate about business.  I want to see more companies Building long term innovations that make a difference to world.  That leave it in a better place, that know how you get results is just as important as the result.


take control of yourself

I was driving home on Monday and was in a road that merged two lanes. Most folks were doing the ‘merge like a zip’ thing, one car didn’t. The guy in the car that got cut out went crazy. Classic road rage. Both drivers totally out of control mentally. Essentially adults behaving like kids.

Seeing this reminded me that the only thing we can really control is ourselves, how we respond to adversity or to the actions of others. Blaming other parts of the business ( “those IT guys”), or the project team or any other part of the busines just escalates the problem. I’m seeing it in, and around other parts of business. I’m also seeing how little progress they are making.  You just end up in stand off of blame, and no one wins.

Recognise whats going on, take control of yourself and your teams and start getting better outcomes

recognising change

Last weekend me and my 2 eldest kids were at the beach boogie boarding.  As the surf was up, I was out in the water with them and helping them catch the waves, everyone was having a great time.   We were swimming between the flags and there were 3 lifeguards on duty. All safe and doing what we should.

Because I had the two kids I was taking turns taking them into the breakers.  At one stage I had my son out in the breakers, I looked to see where my daughter was after her last ride.  I noticed that she’d drifted quite a bit along the shore, so I yelled out for her to come closer, kids being kids, they lose track of where they are and I didn’t think much of it. Then I turned my attention back to the waves, watching for the next big set for my son.  But instead of seeing regular lines of waves, the water was all churned up. Something was wrong, big time.

I turned back to see where my daughter was, and this time I really looked, while in the shallows and genuinely trying to get to me, she was even further away from me. My alarm bells went off.  Right then my son and I plus a 10 year old girl swimming close by got caught in the same rip.  The speed and the power was quite something.  My son and the girl swimming close by hadn’t recognise it for what it was.  I looked at the lifeguards, they hadn’t seen it.

So in that moment I had 3 kids to look after, and it was just me.  So I yelled to my daughter to quit trying to get to me, and get to shore.  She already knew something was up, and my tone of voice confirmed that it was serious. So she changed tack, got her feet down and got to safety.   I had hold of my son,  who was still goofing around, but tied to a floating boogie board.  That meant the girl was in the most danger, she was just swimming, and about now knew she was in trouble. She was getting further away from us and despite her efforts couldn’t close the gap. She began to panic. It was time for drastic action.  So I got my son on top of his boogie board and told him if he let go of it, he would never use an iPad again.   Now he knew it was serious. Then I let go of him and made my way to the girl. Grabbed her, and pulled her toward my son,  grabbed him and then pulled them both into shore.  Crisis averted.  For most people, including the lifeguards, it was a crisis that never was.  They simply hadn’t recognised it.  The people who should have seen it were wondering ‘what happened’.

This story highlights that things change, rapidly.  It’s all of our job to see changes in the market or in our customers and make us all aware of what is happening. Recognising the change for what it is, is the critical part. After that It’s how we react that makes all the difference.    Deciding if this is this a real and present threat or a one off – and then make good choices about how we respond, through good account management,  product offers, price changes, how we deliver our services or how we manage them.  This is the bit we can control….

[PS. After the incident, the girl came up and hugged me, a complete stranger.  That moment was pretty special ]

Pivot Points

The moments in any strategy or deal when the landscape changes… all your planning and assumptions up to that point have been made redundant.

Be it the financial plan you have for your year or business.  When avenues have been explored, discounted or validated.  Or the deal you signed, only for the end customer to change its requirements mid way through implementation.

Recognising those moments is critical.  In my experience high performing teams and people always get the job done, they just find a way.  A singularity of focus and a committment to the getting the outcome is what gets them there….but (and its a big but), we often miss these pivot points because we aren’t looking for them. Instead we are narrowly focused on the one goal.

Being more mindful, rising above the noise, getting off the dancefloor. What ever you call it.  Leaders need to be able to IDENTIFY these pivot points and guide the conversation away from hell bent delivery, to another round of evaluation, options and decisions…