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….

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…


Here’s to the bat crazy

I’m a big believer in constantly stretching myself. I seek out projects to do that, I read stuff about those who I admire, and I try to meet up with others who have been successul.

I’m inspired by folks like Richard Branson, Greg Cross (powerbyproxi), Ben Kepes, Vaughan Rowsell.  All successful, but all doing much much more, be it doing their best to change the world, supporting sports, doing impossible challenges or taking the path less trodden.

Now a confession, for a while now i’ve been talking about how much i’d like to do startup…by a while it might be more like 5 or so years. I don ‘t even write it down when I do my annual career planning, choosing instead to keep it a bit of a secrete.  Around this time of the year I beat myself up a bit and tell myself maybe next year.

Added to that are post by Ben, Rowan Simpson and others about what they are actually doing in the start up / investment space… I got a bit down on myself

So the truth is I’m a wisher…”i wish i could do a start up”. Read Ken Robinson’s book the element, in that he tells a story about how as a kid he said to a guy “man i wish i could play the guitar like you”… to which the guitarist said ” no you don’t, because if you REALLY did, you would practice every day, you are just saying that”…

I’m a 40 something, with 3 kids and a mortgage. I may never do the start up, as Mark Suster says its harder when you are in that demographic,  but i’m coming to terms with it.

On the other hand, at sub 21 you have the ability to swing for the fences…..  When you’re 40, have 3 kids and a mortgage this is much harder.

Lately though i’ve realised that my path might be a differfent one.  My partner and I are on our 5th business (seems a mad number), over which I think we’ve employeed around 100 people over the years.  Three times! Yes THREE times we’ve bought these businesses when our children were weeks old – not recommended unless you are clinically insane. Added to that iv’e done one small investment with Appsecute, started and ran a martial arts club and ….managed to work full time through it all.

I think this list is more conservative than some of the other folks i’ve listed, maybe less so because of them…. for without these guys leading and showing us the way, we dont reach higher.

So here’s to the bat crazy.