As of this fall, I will have been the proud CEO of 1E for precisely a year and I wanted to take the opportunity to share what it’s like to lead a company for the first time.
Creating a sense of purpose
The short version is; my first year has been great. I inherited a 25-year-old company with lots going for it but it’s my job to add yet more value. And my biggest priorities were to create a sense of purpose and establish a value-creation plan, execute that plan, and ensure we stick to it.
When I arrived, 1E was already full of innovation but in need of a more refined “north star.” Something that encompasses and articulates all we’re trying to achieve. Why? Because that’s what makes people turn up for work and seize the day. It helps to create a sense of purpose and mission.
We doubled down on the area of digital employee experience (DEX) and declared that our purpose is to transform and reimagine how technology serves employees. In the era of the Great Resignation, this is massively important and 1E is in the zeitgeist. 1E’s name is derived from a blue-screen computer error that shows “STOP 0x0000001E”. The company founder’s ambition was that 1E could prevent this from happening to employees at big companies. So, you could say we are the original DEX company.
Change, clarity, and collaboration
Life as a first-time CEO has been exhilarating; fast, fueled by change and full of lessons. 1E was still in the throes of being acquired by private-equity company, Carlyle, when I joined, so there were lots of moving parts.
The old cliché of drinking from the fire hose is appropriate here. First, you’re meeting and understanding people whilst building out an executive team. I’ve enjoyed every second but there’s a lot to take in! It’s important to be respectful of pre-existing company culture and history and take an empathetic approach in making your mark. It’s vital to do that by bringing people together rather than breaking things up.
We created a framework we called 1E Clarity, which was a way to keep us honest and auditable about what we’re doing. Why do we exist? How will we succeed? Are we embodying our ‘customer-obsessed’ value? How does an action help drive us to our north star? Etc. I wanted that to seep into every person and every part of the company. We now include it in our onboarding, it drives our monthly all-hands meetings, and echoes through every interaction.
I may sound like a broken record, saying the same things over and over: we need consistency and alignment — and the odd joke about my parrot-style repetition is a price I’m more than happy to pay. In my experience, it’s impossible to over-communicate. I’m convinced that the only way you win and become great is by being super-focused and disciplined. That often means saying no to things, such as a new product idea, a legacy product plan, or a new market to enter. We use our strategic anchors to decide everything and build bonds across the organization.
In tandem with this, it’s important to remember we are data-driven: all our teams know that they must do the research, gather the data, analyze it, and recommend solutions. Data democratizes decision making and without data, all you have is an opinion.
Underpinning everything has been our Value Creation Plan. This is a detailed playbook for transforming our operations and building a foundation for rapid growth. This includes building a best in class go-to-market engine, professional customer success operation, and a customer-value-led product roadmap. The Value Creation Plan has aligned the organization and ensured there is ruthless prioritization.
Using a template
I think any new CEO will draw on past experiences to create a template, I certainly did. But in this instance, I was also helped by a consulting operation called The Table Group and Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. From that, I take the position that if you can build trust, you can handle conflict and take on board perspectives that may otherwise feel challenging. We took the views of Lencioni, added our own flavor, and now we’re on the right track to avoid potential sinkholes: confusion, internal politics, and subsequent unhappiness.
I also believe in the concept of servant leadership. You have an obligation to create a community based on authenticity. Leadership should not be driven by ego but by empathy, creating clarity, and a team ethos.
But at the same time, I also think success is about having big, audacious goals. I set aggressive targets and rally people to believe it’s possible to hit them.
Be the leader you want to see
I’m sure many of us are familiar with the approach of working every hour and driving people mercilessly, but to deliver your best work you need refreshment and relaxation. This is something I want to practice as well as preach.
We each have our own release that helps us let off steam and focus better at work, for me it’s being active. And if I can’t do something active, listening to a podcast enables me to switch off, reset, and learn something new. It’s very easy to work nonstop but I try to carve out time to do other stuff. I need to take time to see how people are doing, to get my head up and ask if people are OK: friends, colleagues, family, just checking in. Encouraging your people to take some time for R and R and the things that energize them is vital.
Another secret weapon in my arsenal is visualization, not just about business but about life. I write down goals: to spend more time with kids, help my daughter ride her bike, etc. Something else leaders can bring to their teams to get the best out of them.
Time is the enemy of us all. I’m one of those people who say, if you have a problem, call me anytime. That’s going to be a challenge as we scale up and I’m going to need to get better at time management. I’m lucky in that I have great people who I can share the burden with and I’m going to have to lean on those people.
A little help from my friends
Mentoring is important to me, and I value both informal and formal opportunities to learn from people – and in the past year at 1E, I’ve had the chance to utilize this; regular calls with Fernando Chueca at Carlyle, 1E founder Sumir Karayi, my former boss and friend Mark Cattini (ex-CEO of Autotask, MapInfo, and Click Software), Advanced CEO Gordon Wilson, Christopher Kenessey, CEO of Alert Media, and many others.
We embrace and extend mentoring and coaching across the leadership team and beyond. If you come up against a block you need to turn to people to help and to get an outside-in view or a voice of experience.
It’s equally important to hear from our customers, so in the past year we formalized matters by creating a customer advisory board and community. It’s easy for people to live in an echo chamber and see only green lights when things are working well for the people paying their wages. Our customers need to be part of our KPI setting and they need to mark our homework. If companies miss that, they may be able to milk revenues for years to come but they won’t inspire people.
I’ve spent more than half of my time since joining on the road meeting customers across the US, Europe, and Asia. It’s a sizeable commitment but so worth it. We have made being customer-obsessed one of our values and I believe in leading from the front. This investment in time drives our product roadmap, our go-to-market strategy, and our approach to customer support.
What’s been hard? People say that change is hard and that’s true. Of course, some feel challenged, and some may leave the company. That’s understandable and the best for all involved.
I push the organization hard and can be very demanding. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I believe deeply in performance culture and that means zero acceptance of tolerating any sub-par element.
But being apart from my family has been hard and it’s obvious to me that I couldn’t do this work if I didn’t have an understanding wife and family.
So here we are a year in. And I say ‘we’ because I’m conscious that I’ve written a lot about myself here, but I want to reiterate that any CEO is only going to be as good as their team. Great leadership is about authenticity and humility and great leaders recognize their team.
To sum up, my belief is that the role of CEO is based on four pillars you can abbreviate as C.A.S.E.
- C is to create a sense of Community and belonging.
- A is to be authentic, wear your heart on your sleeve and don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
- S is creating a sense of Significance. When JFK walked around NASA when he was President he asked the janitor about his role. The janitor replied, “I am here to put a man on the moon.” He understood the significance of his role in the wider scope of the mission.
- E is about creating a sense of Energy and Excitement. It needs to be fun!
So, one last request for readers who have stuck this out: let me know what you think about what I’ve written here. Being a leader is a privilege and honour but for me it means being open so my pledge is to write regularly and honestly about my time here.