A First-Time CEO Talks About Lessons Learned in His First Year

Can you give me an example of a situation you had to deal with that you were previously unfamiliar with?
“One thing had to do with the composition of the senior management team. I brought to their attention that I liked some of the things i saw but also believed that some of the things I was not seeing would help us be a better management team, so I ran those observations by both of them. They said two things: 1) You don’t want to change everything at once; think about having stability. And 2) some of the things I found that needed to change immediately they advised me to do that right away. For example, I hired a new CFO with experience in a private equity-backed firm to tell me the things I should or should not do. Brad and Steve said that seemed like the right first hire for me. I then ran it by the board chairman. He agreed and we executed.”

“As a CEO, you own everything, whether you have anything to do with it or not.”

What were some of the challenges you had to deal with when you started and how did you handle them?
“Our building is a little odd because it’s split in two halves and on three floors. I wanted to bring everybody together to collaborate. I also wanted us to be an attractive employer and to be able to garner the best employees in the face of a lot of tech competition here in Seattle. So I put a barista with free coffee in the lobby to foster cross-functional collaboration. In that coffee line, I learn more than I sometimes learn in half a day in the office. People tell me what’s going on. It was a small investment, but I think it’s paying off in spades.”

What did you learn in your first six months that you did not anticipate?
“Good or bad, it was clear to me that, as a CEO, you own everything, whether you have anything to do with it or not. Particularly when it’s good, I would get credit for decisions that our 1,400 employees and board members make. The real work happens at the front lines and I give credit to the people who do the work. And when one employee didn’t do such a good job with the customer experience, you have to own that too. The need to have a line-of-site to all feedback good or bad was a surprise to me.”

“I’ve now come to terms with not being able to control what happens, but I can control how we react. I will proactively call if I hear that something happened. I’ll call the CEO and apologize and I make the problem mine. And I always try to listen. I want to hear about issues going on and want to signal to other CEOs that it’s got my attention and top management’s attention, and sometimes that alone gives them comfort.”