Rob Girling: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became the CEO of Artefact
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t sustain imbalance for long, so it’s better to treat yourself kindly all the time.
Don’t believe you need to have all the answers. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know, let me think about that.” As a business owner, you shouldn’t have many rote answers to questions. It’s better to think about what needs to be said rather than be spontaneous and risk upsetting people.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Girling.
Rob is a designer passionate about mitigating the negative impact of technology and maximizing the positive. He co-founded Artefact, a purpose-driven strategy and design company dedicated to responsible design. He has worked across the tech industry in various leadership roles at IDEO, Apple, Sony, and Microsoft. He also co-founded the SAAS resource management software 10000ft, acquired by Smartsheet in 2019.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was a latchkey kid. Growing up in the 80s and 90s meant I had a ton of time to dream, exercise my imagination through art, and play with the very first generations of personal computers. Eventually, a fascination with computer graphics and how to make experiences like video games more “interactive” led me to be one of the very first generation of designers working on human-computer interaction. That led to work in Big Tech (Apple, Microsoft, and Sony) and consulting (IDEO).
Despite the number of designers working with tech on web design, communications, and marketing, at the time only a small fraction focused on technology innovation to solve broader human problems. I didn’t know I wanted to start my own business until midway through my career. Working at IDEO as a design consultant, I realized that I might be able to do this for myself.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
In hindsight, I was slow to embrace the title of CEO and slow to realize the full scope of what the role held. When my co-founder Gavin Kelly and I first founded Artefact, we were very hands-on with every role in every project. The first time an employee asked what our parental leave policy was, or what their career path looked like, we realized there’s much more to being a business owner than guiding client work. I realized that we were in many ways responsible for the livelihoods and aspirations of our employees and their families. The 2008 financial crisis marked the first real “CEO moment,” when we had to think very strategically about forecasting, financial stability, staffing, and messaging. Being a CEO is a constant journey of growth.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Strong relationships are key, and I’ve had an incredible partner in my co-CEO Gavin Kelly. Maintaining good relationships and a solid reputation, both within the business and through the industry, is critically important in consulting. Otherwise, success has come from hard work, a passion for the craft, and a series of fortunate events that I can only describe as luck. I know entrepreneurs don’t want to hear that, but it is at least a little bit responsible for most business’ success.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t sustain imbalance for long, so it’s better to treat yourself kindly all the time.
- Things are never as good or as bad as you think. Your view of the business is often more emotional than objective.
- Ask more questions and listen to the answers. Listening to how people express themselves tells you a ton about them and how they are feeling.
- Don’t believe you need to have all the answers. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know, let me think about that.” As a business owner, you shouldn’t have many rote answers to questions. It’s better to think about what needs to be said rather than be spontaneous and risk upsetting people.
- It’s often better when it’s someone else’s idea — meaning, don’t feel pressure to solve all of the problems all of the time. Leverage your team’s good ideas.
I was probably told many of these things before becoming a CEO, but you often don’t appreciate the advice until you’ve lived through the experience. I’m still learning many of these lessons every day.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Careers span a long period of time. People often seem to be in a big hurry to “get on” with their career, whatever that means to them personally. Sometimes, the next challenge can come too soon and you may spend a period of time feeling stressed and inadequate. Rather than racing on to the next challenge, my advice is simply to go at your own speed and take the time to enjoy becoming excellent at something.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
If I have to pick one person — other than my wife — it is my business partner Gavin Kelly, who has been a great friend and colleague through our journey together. I have tremendous gratitude for Gavin and his patience, guidance, coaching, and friendship. As he steps back from the business in June, I’ve been reflecting on the dynamic we’ve established working together. While we share a very similar perspective, there is enough difference of opinion and philosophy to keep things interesting. I’m energized to chart the next phase of Artefact’s journey, knowing I will always have his friendship and support.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, the world is facing a very challenging business environment. This is my key focus. I’d like to look back in a few years and say that I navigated this time well, adapted and adjusted, and led Artefact to new heights of success.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
At Artefact, we hope to use our work to influence designers in the tech community to think more deeply about the responsibility and impact they have on the world, and as a result, do a better job of designing a preferable future.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
We live in very divided times. I am worried about social cohesion and an increasingly polarized world. If I were to start a movement, it would be to inspire people to explore politics and policy in terms of shared long-term outcomes rather than short-term goals. If we connected in this way, I think we would find that we as a society are superficially divided. Many of us share the same vision for what a preferable future looks like for us and our families. We can and should disagree on methods to achieve those outcomes, but building our discourse on a foundation of the directional agreement would be conducive to more civil and productive collaboration that would greatly enhance all of our lives.
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