My name is Austin Harman, and I’m the President & CEO of The Penn Group, a cybersecurity company headquartered in Columbus, OH.
When you start a company, life gets weird. This was clearly evidenced by the over-zealous way I popped out of my bed on April 15th, 2019. I was excited. I was equipped. I was ready to make $1 million dollars that day. I even made my bed. Although I was ready, I wasn’t quite that overly optimistic about if I could actually pull any of that off. Back in yester-year, I had actually started a company before. Affectionately called Red Hair Computer Repair. Naturally, as a ginger I wanted to lean into the stereotypes. Luckily computers do not have souls, so we are all good there. I learned then that starting a business is hard. It is really freakin’ hard. Yet, I for some reason, came back for more. The Penn Group isn’t the conventional company, and I’m no typical CEO.
In my lifetime, I’ve had the opportunity to do some fantastic things. I’m 25 years old. I’ve founded 2 companies, both of which went on to be profitable. I’m a college graduate from Oklahoma State University. I’m an app developer, fast food eater, and mildly addicted to Coke. I’m broken, I’m incapable, inadequate, and sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get it right. I’ve been to the other side of hell. I’ve been on my knees to beg. I am an orphan. I’ve been on my own since 16. I’m empowered, I’m equipped. I’m confident. I’m a former Site Lead/Program Manager for the United States Department of Defense. I’m the CEO of a cybersecurity company. I believe that my journey, which is a concoction of selfish regret and humble empowerment, is one of the key reasons why I was crazy enough to do it all over again. I am a man, I am 25 years old, and I am a CEO. Here is what I have learned over the last 6 months of running a company.
The Paradox of Leadership
As a leader, it can be easy to turn into a draconian boss that demands respect by way of position. After all, you’re the boss. Who should be able to challenge you anyway? Maybe that isn’t you. Maybe you’re the kind of leader that doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Maybe you want everyone to like you. It would be easier not to have the conversation with Becky who chews her nails in front of everyone and makes them uncomfortable. It would be easier. The reality is, being a boss is easy. Being a leader is hard. In fact, it is one of the toughest jobs in the world. My leadership tends to lean towards the latter of the two examples. I tend to be a leader who exercises restraint in order to ensure the preservation of people, feelings, and ego. By ego I mean, my ego. I want people to like me. I want to be the best leader in the world. While trying to be the best leader, I ignored situations that should have been addressed. By trying to preserve relationships, I actually further damaged my own creditability with my own people by not leading through the challenge. I call this self-deceit the “paradox of leadership”.
The Paradox of leadership: Our natural inclination is to avoid, mitigate, and transfer in order to protect emotions, ego, and perception. With these efforts, we actually further damage the things we are trying to protect. We might ignore the fact that Stephanie didn’t show up to a meeting to protect her feelings. In reality, the rest of the team’s morale was damaged because they showed up on time, and their time was not respected.
From my team, what I get is a product of what I encourage and what I tolerate. If I don’t address for fear of hurting, I might hurt everyone. Have the conversation. Get into their business. Otherwise, you might be going out of business yourself.
Perception Is Reality
One of the most difficult things that we have had to overcome is simple realities of our situation. It doesn’t take a PHD in philosophy or a Harvard business major to explain why people did not want to do business with a 25-year-old who had been in business for 4 weeks. In fact, when I was in the process of starting my company, people from a far criticized me for being “too young”. Others criticized for being too inexperienced. My response was simple. There is never going to be a better time than now. 10 years from now, I may not be in the position to even take this big of a risk. Life is complicated and messy. Irrespective of my personal feelings, we had a real problem. How do you build legitimacy as a company when the deck of cards is stacked against you right out of the gate?
Instead of walking away from the problem, we walked right into it. Perception is reality. We needed to create a new reality around how and who we did business with. Several of my colleagues around me were extremely experienced, and quite honestly knew a lot more about security than me. Instead of being worried about how old I was, I leaned into the fact that I was young. For each business meeting, I took a far more experienced person with me. What ended up happening was, at first the clients would give us the stink eye. Then, they heard us speak. Both equally yoked in knowledge and maturity. We reset the reality and formed a new perception of who we are and what we stood for. For those of you who are young, I want to encourage you to get out there and do something. Tomorrow is too late. You just have to start. For those of you who are old, not all young people are created equally. Not every millennial needs a safe place. Lean into your perception. Reset it. Lead through it.
Discipline Matters, A lot.
The hardest person to lead is yourself. As the leader of an organization, you’re tasked with setting the pulse of how everyone acts. Following the thoughts of cynic, under the shadow of the leader, how you feel as the leader and what you do matters to the team exponentially more than you think it could. I believe one of the most interesting things about this idea is how the very demographics of your own teams can shift based on how you treat people. Outside of my company, I spent some considerable time with a local Church. During my time, I witnessed a significant demographic change among the team during a leadership transition. Under one leader, there were virtually no female or young team members. After the leadership change, the team consisted of a nearly equal distribution of young and old, male and female. I attributed this shift to how each of the leaders treated their teams. How you act around your team affects not only how they are feeling, but their relationship with the organization at large. Infinitely more interesting is the idea that who you are attracts and inspires people around you to follow your dreams and vision.
At TPG, we have a vision to create a company that isn’t known for our cybersecurity work, but for our generosity. I personally believe that as leaders of the next generation, we are empowered and equipped to use our resources, financial and otherwise, to change some of the problems that we see within our world. This vision is simple to grasp onto, and we have attracted high quality talent as a result. What isn’t so apparent is the discipline that was required on behalf of our leaders in order to facilitate this attraction. With every interaction we have, an exponential amount of discipline is required. Consistency builds trust. Therefore, as a leader we must be disciplined in our consistency to maintain trust with our teams. What is the most fascinating to me is: Where I struggle to be disciplined in my personal life often comes out in deficiencies in my organization. For example: If I struggled to get a project over the finish line due to a lack of discipline, this behavior would bleed through my leaders and through the entire team. Ultimately my lack of discipline would begin to affect the company culture. The hardest person to lead is yourself. I’ve learned that you simply can’t afford to not be highly disciplined in this seat.
One of the things I didn’t count on in the beginning is how important partnerships would be to the success of The Penn Group. In the early days of the company, much of our activity surrounded building the legitimacy of the company. We focused our activity on the “feel” of the company. This early effort would pay off in a dramatic way, as about 2 weeks into standing up the company, we signed our first partnership agreement with another company. Over the past 6 months, we have signed many more partnerships with many different kinds of companies.
Partnerships aren’t just a strategic initiative either. One of TPG’s core values is unity. We believe that we aren’t meant to do life or work alone. We believe far more can be done together than apart. That to say, partnerships have enabled my company to exist beyond the scope of our traditional reach and means. More specifically, we have opted to partner with companies that have similar goals to us. We don’t partner with everyone, but the organizations we do partner with matter. Practically speaking, it may not seem all that profound as to why I’m sharing the fact that embrace partnerships. After all, with a broad generalization, many companies partner to achieve a broader objective. I’m sharing this lesson to underscore how important of a perspective shift this was for me and my team. Often, entrepreneurs think they have to do everything on their own. After all, why give business to someone else?
The shift came when we took a step back and realized that without these key partnerships, we would never be given a chance otherwise. You see- most organizations aren’t interested in doing business with a new company. For most, it is actually frowned upon to do business with a new company. In the classic chicken and egg dilemma: how are you supposed to get customers without experience? How are you supposed to get experience without customers? Our breakthrough came when we realized we didn’t have to fight within the bounds of these limitations. Instead of trying to figure everything out on our own, we could lean into our partners who specialized in what they did best. Our partnerships enabled us to win, when we otherwise wouldn’t have. Don’t underestimate how valuable a partnership could be to you and your company.
6 Months Later
At the end of the day, we are just beginning on this journey. If you have made it this far, you likely have the grit that is required to start a company. It is never easy, but that is exactly why we do it. Entrepreneurs don’t wake up for a boring desk job, just waiting for retirement. Each day, we blaze a new path. We bring people along with us. We change lives for the better. As far as I’m concerned, this is just a chapter in a long-storied company that will last beyond my time here.
Austin Harman is the President & CEO of The Penn Group. He currently holds the coveted CISSP certification, in conjunction with the CCSP, CAP, and Security+ certifications from ISC2 and CompTIA respectively. He resides in Columbus, Ohio.