I am the CEO at Happy Cog, a digital design studio. We have offices in New York, Philadelphia, and Austin. We have been growing. We now have 33 employees, up from just north of 20 a few months ago. As I write this, I’m on an airplane to Austin to talk strategy with my business partner Greg and to meet some new employees I’ve never met in person. That is goddamn crazy to me. The scale of our operation has really changed from back when it was me and a few contractors taking conference calls in my dining room.
We have a 360 degree peer feedback evaluation we do as part of our formal annual employee reviews. Over the past couple of years, I’ve conveniently left myself off the review roster. Not that I think I don’t deserve the feedback, but I’d definitely be lying if I said I made it a priority. After all, it was quite literally my blood, sweat, and tears that got my part of this company off the ground seven years ago, so I deserve some kind of special dispensation, right? Diplomatic immunity!
After repeated “You know, we oughtta…” conversations with Greg, we both finally put ourselves on the review schedule.
Well, the results are in, and you know what? Mine kind of suck. They weren’t off-the-charts horrible (there were a few “best boss ever” comments that gave me a Michael Scott kind of feeling), but there were way more “needs improvement” marks that I ever anticipated. Because I anticipated none. And some of the comments people left was like chewing aluminum foil. My first reaction was surprise. Then defensiveness. Maybe a bit of anger. I thought things like, “Well, Steve Jobs had issues, but Apple turned out just fine. It’ll be ok, Greg. Grab a beer.”
So what came through loud and clear?
- I can’t let go. Of basically anything. And I leave talented people looking for stuff to do because I won’t take the time to show them.
- I make snap decisions without consulting others. I’m impatient.
- I spend less and less time with each employee. Some know very little about me, and I about them.
- I get defensive
- I’m inconsistent
- I handle disappointment poorly
- Some employees might be scared of me
That last one almost brought me to tears, and it was mentioned by more than one person. While I was walking around selling myself as Mr. Approachable, I was actually, in all likelihood, someone people avoided eye contact with. How could I have gotten to this place? Next to my family, this company is the most important thing in my life, this company. I love it, and I love my coworkers. But they could be afraid of me? My God.
Then, the straw-grasping began. How could I have gone astray? I narrowed the reasons for my shortcomings as a boss to three current and primary culprits: the new office construction I was overseeing, the fact that this is my company, and yes, even my kids.
Excuse: The new office.
For the past year, I have been hunting for, negotiating over, securing financing for, project managing, and troubleshooting an office construction project for our Philly team. No, not simply assuming a lease on turnkey office space, but designing and building a new space from scratch. If you’re in a position to do the same, don’t think twice about it, think twenty times about it. It’s a soul-sucking, mentally and physically exhausting process. And a year later, it’s not over. While we’ve now been in the new digs for two months, the work is incomplete. Miscommunications have led to colossal downstream issues, and it has totally consumed me—likely contributing to most, if not all of the bulleted points above.
But you know what? That excuse is completely lame. I was hamstrung from the beginning by my fatal flaw — not willing to let go. There are people who help you pull these things off. You know, architects, construction managers, project managers, and interior designers. Those people. You can pay them with money to provide services for you, so you don’t have to worry about it.
But nooooo. Not me. Why?
I wanted direct control of as many details as possible. When you start your own company literally out of your house, you have a very specific vision floating in your head of the company you’ll have in 5-10 years, even if you have no real business plan to get you there. For me, that vision had lots more people working in an office in the city with lots of sleek glass, informal and formal meeting spaces, a killer sound system, and all of the comforts of home. And I was convinced that no one else could try to build that for me, only I could. So I owned it, and it killed me. It stole my attention, depleted my energy, and robbed my interaction with my employees.
So yeah, the office move took me out of the loop, but the fact that I allowed it to is totally on me. I wanted to protect my coworkers from all of this crap, but by overloading myself, I created more problems than I solved. But most importantly, I was reminded that the physical environment in which you work should be a distant second to the people that inhabit that environment.
Excuse: It’s my company.
I make knee-jerk decisions that sometimes undermine hours of discussions that groups of people have leading up to a decision. And in my mind, subconsciously, I think I know best, so I have no problem doing it. It’s my company!
That’s bullshit. It’s not my company. It’s our company, whether I am employee one or employee 31. If I was on the other side of the fence, I’d be furious. Leadership requires understanding the landscape that you’re operating in and not steamrollering people or ideas in the process. And yes, sometimes leadership requires making decisions when they’re not being made. In my case, it was too much of my trying to assert myself to maintain control of something that I’ve put smart people in positions to control themselves. I preach about throwing people in the pool, but I wasn’t practicing what I preached.
Excuse: The kids.
I have two young kids at home, ages 3 and 9 months. I’m 44. I had about 20 years of yucking it up—pretty much doing what I wanted, when I wanted. I would get at least eight glorious hours of sleep a night.
All of a sudden, these amazing little creatures came into my life and diverted my attention from me, and certainly my work. The eight hours of sleep went out the window. The inevitable frustrations that accompany having kids around mounted quickly, not to mention the added stress my wife accumulated being with them full time. Home, my sanctuary, became a different place, but that’s part of the deal. And no matter how many times other parents tell you what’s coming, it still punches you in the teeth, and significantly affects your patience and demeanor. But no one at my place of work expects to suffer from my choice to be a father, and any focus I might have lost in the process is not really an excuse. Get through it, dude. And I am.
Reality: I waited too long.
If I can offer any advice to people in my position, it’s please don’t wait to get a candid assessment of what your coworkers think of how you’re steering the ship. Chances are, you’re not as smooth as you think. Also, only by subjecting yourself to the same processes and protocols you impose on your colleagues will you truly understand how they impact them. You’re not immune.
The next several weeks will be course-correcting ones for me, and I plan on doing things much differently in 2014.