What I Learned In My First Year As CEO

When John Murdock inherited the top spot, under tragic circumstances, the pressure was on to quickly climb the learning curve. He shares his top seven lessons.

In late 2017, a friend and mentor passed away suddenly. At the time, he was serving as our CEO, which deepened the loss. Not long after, our board of directors asked me to fill his shoes and take the CEO post—an honor that was absolutely humbling. While becoming a CEO was one of my career goals, I wasn’t expecting it to happen under these circumstances—nor so early in my career. Like all challenges in my life, I leaned in, tapped my network for support and embraced the challenge.

As a first time CEO, I knew there would be a tremendous amount to learn, high pressure, mistakes, accomplishments and important decisions. I knew the company would look to me for leadership, vision, guidance and help in making Centage a great place to grow their careers. I took time to reflect on how I wanted to lead the company. In an age of rapid change and emerging technologies, I obviously want to ensure my company was at the cutting edge of innovation and generating value for our customers, partners and employees. Achieving these goals would require deep cross-functional collaboration, innovation and a culture that drove excellence.

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from amazing mentors and leaders through the years. I try to pass along that knowledge to others, so in an effort to help other future CEOs, here are a few lessons I’ve learned in my first year as a CEO.

Lesson #1: Empower Your Team and Get Out of the Way

It’s one thing to say I want a collaborative environment; it’s a whole other animal to achieve it. We started off by creating an Operations Council made up of representatives at all levels of seniority and from every department across the company. At first, the meetings were awkward and reserved (this kind of activity had no precedent in our company). I quickly realized that I needed to remove myself from the meetings so that the participants could speak more freely about tough issues and opportunities.

In short order the Operations Council determined that there were too many disconnects within the company and with our customer base. Our teams create a ton of excellent resources, but one had to know about them, and know who to ask in order to access them. To eliminate these disconnects the Council created a customer help hub, which is a knowledge base, product video library and user community all wrapped up in a central online location. Adoption of this help hub among our clients, partners and employees was so immediate and widespread that “help hub” has quickly become a verb for us.

Lesson #2: Foster Collaboration When You’re Not There

The kind of collaboration I envisioned for my company was a whole new concept for our employees; a whole new muscle to flex and exercise. Consider the dynamics that will occur when, say,  a VP of sales and a customer care rep sit at a table as co-equals. Those dynamics must be worked through, because the end goal is to connect all employees to the business strategy, as well as the decisions that need to be made to secure our future.

I found that the level of collaboration I needed required constant communications, if you will—promotional emails, word of mouth, all-hands meetings, even talking with people I passed in the hallway or breakroom.

Lesson #3: Accept Chaos and Context Switching

I worked very closely with our former CEO and thought I was prepared, but the complexities of supporting the employees, customers, investors, outside stakeholders—all while building new products and plotting a path for the future—took me a bit by surprise. If you’re a head of sales like I was before taking the CEO post – you have a specific set of goals, outcomes are measured clearly, and you can get into a flow. You know what’s expected of you and much of your focus stays locked on revenue.

Being a CEO means living without this clean steady state, and I needed to force myself to be comfortable with chaos and context switching. Transparency is key here. I encourage my team to manage me, meaning I ask them to tell me what they need most from me right now. You’ll deliver the most benefit by leaning on your team to help prioritize your time.

Lesson #4: Stay Available, Stay Visible, and Serve

With so many balls up in the air and pressing issues to address, it’s all too easy to book your schedule from morning till night—but don’t. Collaboration and transparency require an open door and free time. I found that the more I’m available to employees, the more value I add to our customers and stakeholders. Even though on any given day I have a million things to attend to, I make time to walk the floor, talk to people and generally let people know I’m available. It’s disingenuous to state you want a collaborative and transparent environment but then have no time to connect with people.

Lesson #5: Find a Mentor…or Three

When I accepted the role, I immediately joined a CEO peer group and sought out a CEO mentor too. If you don’t want to pay for these resources, network and ask for volunteers. I’ve found the best leaders are those that mentor others, so you’d be surprised how many people will say yes to an occasional conversation or meeting. It’s a huge advantage to have someone to call for perspective who doesn’t have a vested interest in my company and is willing to share their experience, too. There are so many challenges that are specific to the role of CEO, and there’s simply no single person that will always have the answers. For example – when you’re trying to figure out how to establish values and principles that will guide your company over the next decade, it’s super helpful to go talk to three or four people who have already done that.

Lesson #6: Make a Decision Already! Progress vs. Perfection

I feel like time accelerates when you’re a CEO. You set a goal and a time frame—say, three months—and before you know it, that time has elapsed and you’re left wondering where it went. To combat this, get as many data points as you can upfront, have as many one-on-one conversations as possible, then take what you have and make a decision. Don’t get stuck in “analysis paralysis” or harp on whether it was perfect or whether it was the right decision. You need to know when things are good enough to move on. Perfection is the enemy of progress, and it’s progress that you need when the clock is ticking.

Lesson #7: Balance Working on the Business with Working in the Business

Find the right balance between working on the business—i.e. thinking long term about the business strategy, the market and the big picture—and working in the business, which is making your operations stronger and your product better. That balance isn’t 50/50, mind you, it just means allocating time for each is important, as is keeping your team focused accordingly. We have established an annual operating system which helps to drive the right amount of time and focus.

Some of these lessons were hard won. Even knowing our company, its products and the market very well before I took the helm, I still encountered many surprises. I suppose that is the nature of being a CEO. Still, I’m a stronger leader than I was a year ago, and I believe the company is better for it.