The Journey to CEO

by | February 2, 2016

Yeah, we’ve all heard it – you must work “on” your business not “in” it.  I’m a big believer; yet I found it, as many business owners do, really tough to execute upon.  The reason why?  Because it’s easy to find the things that need to be done in day-to-day operations.  We know how to serve our clients and do our jobs.  Being a CEO is something entirely different and the required tasks are not so obvious. 

Two years ago, in moving myself toward CEO, I began to perform less of the day-to-day operations as well as the hands-on legal work for clients.  We began to build processes to ensure the company could continue operating if I wasn’t present. There were some clear day-to-day operational items that I wasn’t needed for:  Newsletter and social media content, bookkeeping and invoicing, and getting things done around the office.  These could clearly be delegated to our great staff members.  As for client service, we wanted to be sure all our clients had multiple attorney contacts within the firm so that if one attorney was unavailable they could comfortably work with someone else.   This goal led to more client work shifting from me to others in the firm.  These are all good methods for an aspiring CEO to enact.

However, I still held the primary role in marketing and sales, being point person for our General Counsel clients, anything regulatory such as 401(k) compliance, and oversight of finance and operations.  I felt I was doing pretty well in shifting to CEO. 

Yet, in hindsight, I see that my days were still filled with marketing and sales meetings.  I understood certain strategic thinking was needed and actions taken to really move the business forward; but generally, I didn’t have time for it – and to be honest, didn’t really know how to do it.  So it was easier to fill my days with what I knew was necessary – get the “stuff” done and continue marketing.

Having been physically distant from the business for the past 18 months, I have not been able to fill my days with meetings and the areas of the business where both opportunities and challenges exist have become more apparent.  Not being physically in the office to see and feel the vibe of the team and the momentum of the work has provided a few incredible benefits in my journey to CEO:

1.       Focus on Reality.   I knew that being away from the business physically would remove me from the “sense” of what was going on in the day-to-day.  I couldn’t rely entirely on the words and feelings of the team to reflect what was actually occurring in the business; so we formalized key performance indicators (KPIs) for the business.  We looked at what information we needed to understand the trends of the business and implemented tools to track and report upon these regularly.  The ability to use data to support changes we needed to make allowed the business managers who “replaced” me in the office to gain credibility and have necessary conversations and take action. 

2.       Focus on People.  Strangely enough, this distance also forced a focus on the team dynamics.  It removed me as mediator of all things personnel and encouraged the individuals to solve problems with one another.  I held weekly or bi-weekly meetings with each employee individually, and actually became more aware of the team on a personal and emotional level than ever before.  I was able to hear from them what was most important and understood that, for most, it’s not just about coming to work and doing a good job; it’s about feeling valued and providing value.  I realized that in order to put the right person in the right seat to maximize their happiness and contribution I also needed to understand their drivers and values. 

3.       Focus on Big Picture. The distance from daily fire-fighting provides the time to consider our business’ goals; time to look at the data and the people and determine what the business needs to achieve those goals.  It’s still hard, especially on your own, to do this work.  What does a CEO do?  What should I focus on?  How do I know I’m on the right track?  I am a huge advocate of business coaches and peer leadership groups or CEO groups to help focus on what the business needs.  Once you can determine what the business needs, which takes time and distance, you can implement action plans.  Action plans often require change, which leads us back to the focus on people.  Change is tough for most people and as CEO it’s your job to help your team to see its purpose and value. 

Our company has undergone a lot of change in the past two years and virtually all of it for the better. I know, for me, I’m a better CEO because of it.