You aren’t born knowing how to start a company or be a CEO. The journey matters most in your transformation from founder to CEO. It is both a beautiful journey and at times, a gut-wrenching one. But it is a journey that I’ve cherished and, in my opinion, the most profound journey that one can take in a career. Along the way, I have collected the following seven lessons about the path from founder to CEO.
1. The CEO must be the chief culture officer. A company is like a person (even legally treated as such), and some companies have a great brain, fewer have a great heart and even fewer have a great soul. The CEO should care about nourishing the soul. You can tell when a company has a great soul just by walking the halls and feeling the energy. Does the company give you energy, or does it take your energy away?
2. The CEO must constantly work on self-improvement and take time to reflect. I chose to read hundreds of leadership and management books in my first two years post-Wharton to help me on my journey. A CEO should also seek out mentors and leverage a CEO coach.
3. The CEO should own the long-term vision of the company. The CEO also decides when to sell their company or keep growing. This is aligned with the long-term vision. How bright is the future? Is it real or a mirage? What kind of impact do you want to make?
4. The CEO should always treat recruiting as a top-three priority. As CEO, you will be defined by those with whom you choose to surround yourself. If there is dysfunction at the top, there will be a huge ripple effect throughout the company, causing dysfunction at the bottom. Recruiting your board should especially be a focus. It is much harder to fire a board member if you have made a mistake. Don’t get star struck by pedigree—spend the time to really get to know them and check their references.
5. The CEO should choose to celebrate regularly. Hold all-hands meetings where vision, alignment and transparency prevail. At Bazaarvoice, the software-as-a-service firm I co-founded in 2005, we chose the Alamo Drafthouse for our quarterly meetings. Everyone arrived relaxed. Drinks and food were available throughout the day. We had a film festival. We had a band. All metrics were revealed. Everyone knew how we were trying to be aligned and what our goals and progress were. These events were magical. Early investors who witnessed them were wowed. They were my favorite days at Bazaarvoice, second only to our Client Summits.
6. The CEO should evolve systems to keep everyone aligned. I was very influenced by Marc Benioff’s book, Behind the Cloud, where he discusses his V2MOM model. The beauty of the V2MOM model is that everyone participates and forms their goals in synch with the corporate goals. It is a chain that goes from the top to the bottom to keep everyone aligned—and happier. If you know how you are performing and that it is indeed aligned with the overall strategy of the company, then your work will be more fulfilling as a result. And this allows the company to constantly measure and improve.
7. The CEO should embrace vulnerability. A CEO is very hard to mentor if they don’t practice reflection. A CEO is impossible to mentor if they cannot be vulnerable. At Bazaarvoice, we enabled individuals to regularly rate managers on whether or not they were living the core values. We regularly ran climate surveys to evaluate our overall culture. We participated in “best places to work” surveys, where we were ranked against other companies in town.
These are difficult practices. They require you to be open, and sometimes what you learn is hard to change. But to not do them—and not make them a priority as CEO—is to turn your back on the voice of your people, which ultimately will affect not just your culture but your performance.