Usually advice for new CEOs comes from those who have made a career for themselves out of those three letters. I’m new to this particular C-Job having taken it on officially when Ben and I founded Jelly. I felt the time was right after working alongside CEOs over the last fifteen years or more.
I’ve learned so much by working alongside some fantastic CEOs over the years. When I spot a good trait, I adopt it. Still, many of my thoughts on how to operate have been shaped by what not to do. I’ve been witness to some great folks and close friends struggle in, and lose the position.
I’m sharing five lessons learned. I’ll try to share more as this adventure continues. These five will likely evolve as well. Nevertheless, in my short time as a CEO, these are some tips I’ve picked up, such as they are, that I would say to someone who is just starting out as a CEO.
Never assume everyone is on the same page even if your company is only a handful of people. Communicate often! In the absence of knowledge, fear fills the void. Even if a CEO tells their board, that everything is going very badly. That’s good because, “The CEO is on top of it.”
I remember a day at Twitter in 2008. A few team members were showing me a graph of signups for that week on Friday afternoon. I looked at the graph and said, “Whoa, what happened on Wednesday!? What caused a million signups?” The answer? Our service didn’t break for 24 hours straight.
What? I couldn’t believe it. I knew we were growing fast with hundreds of thousands of signups per day but I didn’t know it could be a million or more a day. This little bit of information threw into stark relief just how important it was for us to fix our technical problems, and fast.
Ask for Advice
There are more smart people outside your company than inside. I’m sure your team is the best, I’m just talking mathematically. No matter how big your company is, there are more smart people outside. So, when you need help try turning to a wide variety of outside sources.
No matter what job you have, you can always learn more and do better. Just because you’re suddenly “The Chief” doesn’t mean you know everything. Part of being CEO is accumulating a wide variety of experience, feedback, and perspectives so you can come at challenges creatively.
When we were preparing to launch Jelly the first time around, I got advice from a musician to temper the utopian aspects of our brand rhetoric. A leading mind in the search industry told us not to link Jelly with the word search. I took the musician’s advice. Ask, listen, and take action.
I really don’t like doing this. If the cause for firing is egregious, I’ll write myself a script, get into character, and play a role. Sometimes that’s the only way I can get through a particularly sticky situation with minimal mess. The decision was already made, it’s not going to be a negotiation.
Usually an employee already knows things aren’t working because you’ve had multiple talks. That might seem like it will be easier. It’s not. You may remember writing them their offer letter, you may personally like the person. It doesn’t matter, it’s time to take responsibility.
If a person has done something horrible, fire them. If someone is no good at their job and can’t get good, fire them. If a person is great at what they do but cannot get along with anyone, they are poison to your company culture and you have to fire them or lose all the other great people.
I was at a company many years ago where a particular employee was extremely talented in his particular field but an absolute nightmare to work with. He needed to go. He was finally let go but it was years too late and significant damage had already been done. Don’t let that happen.
As CEO, the buck stops with you. Your opinion carries weight and that can feel great. However, it also means you’ve gotta do the uncomfortable things. And firing people is the most uncomfortable thing. The thing is, not firing people is a very good way to ruin your entire company.
Say Nice Things
You should compensate people what they’re worth, that goes without saying. Getting a raise is great. Telling people they’re doing a good job means a lot to a person making the effort. If somebody is working hard and doing good work, they deserve to be praised for that. You’ll feel good too.
When I worked at Google, a peer could recomend you for outstanding work. You’d get a small bonus too. Someone did this for me once. Even though I was in debt at the time, the fact that someone went out of their way to praise me was far more valuable to me than the money.
Be A Leader
My favorite Star Trek episode is “Attached.” Dr. Crusher and Captain Picard can hear each others thoughts. They’re lost in a desert. Picard stops, he looks around, and confidently proclaims, “This way.” Dr. Crusher knows that the Captain has no clue which way to go and she calls him on it.
Captain Picard doles out some great advice. He tells her that being Captain doesn’t mean he has all the answers but it does mean that he has to lead. Even if he doesn’t know which way to go right now, he must decide. The point is, he has the confidence to know that he’ll figure it out soon.
Co-founder and CEO
Jelly Industries, Inc.