In honor of Monday's holiday, I thought I'd change up the subject and talk a little bit about leadership in a small business startup. This is a subject that I don't have nearly the authority or experience to speak about in the same way as SEO.
After all, I've worked on dozens of successful search marketing projects, but only one startup - SEOmoz. Despite this limitation, I've had the privilege of working with and meeting dozens of other successful (and not so successful) CEOs and entrepreneurs from startups around the world.
Rather than attempt to dictate what all startup CEOs should do or what separates the good from the bad, I'd like to simply share my personal experience - where I went right and where I've gone wrong. Hopefully, by seeing the strengths and weaknesses of another CEO, you can begin your own self examination (or an examination of your company's CEO).
Traits that Have Helped Me to Be a Better CEO
· A Voracious Appetite for Knowledge
Particularly in the world of web startups, an all-consuming need to have information has been a boon. It means that I'm not only ahead of the curve in seeing trends or being able to blog about what's coming, but also that I've helped to make SEOmoz a source for those seeking to learn more. It's also a positive for when the press comes calling and needs a comment on the latest algorithm change or vertical search inclusion at Google.
· An Addiction to Multi-Tasking
As frustrating as this can be for anyone who's got tough deadlines, it's generally a positive for a CEO. I find that I can read & respond to email, chat with employees over IM, edit a document, and browse the news all while composing a blog entry. It's certainly not the most efficient way to get things done, but it means that very little slips by unnoticed and the most pressing issue can take priority.
· Seeing the Good in Everyone
As with the above, it's a double-edged sword, but I think it makes for a great culture around SEOmoz and internally with the team. My sometimes naive optimism has also been a great olive branch to making friends and connections in the industry, although I've occasionally been duped by a client who was never going to pay or given up valuable time trying to smooth thing over a non-issue.
· Caring About More than Money
If you're always pursuing the fastest way to high profits, you could be missing sight of the bigger picture. Successful management means thinking more broadly and creatively about where there's a need waiting to be fulfilled and how to fill that niche. I've also found that personally, it's easy to spot someone who's just in the business for the money vs. those who really care and want something great for the industry. It might be the optimism speaking, but I feel that the latter group usually produces the brightest innovations (and eventually, profit, too).
· The Ability to Communicate in Multiple Mediums
Writing, orating, & speaking on the phone are essential to building a business. For me, they've helped to build a profile in the industry, create lasting relationships with companies and people in the field, and, of course, market SEOmoz through the blog. Don't underestimate the power of great email composition either - since it's so often the first point of contact outsiders have with the CEO, crafting great emails makes for memorable, positive brand experiences.
· A Background in Usability
Not every CEO needs this, but I've found that in a web-based market, having watched dozens of people navigate (or try to navigate) websites has given me an extra edge in empathizing with the user and trying to understand what they need. Even to this day, if you meet me and we're hanging out at a conference, I'll probably be watching someone browse the web on their computer - seeing where they go and how they follow links. If you catch me doing this, I promise, it's just the usability guy in me - nothing creepy.
Areas Where I've Struggled
· Inconsistent in Recognizing Talent
Not only have I made a few mistakes in hiring the wrong folks, I've also struggled to find the best fit for the talented people we do bring on board. I'm deeply envious of CEOs who can magically size up a person's strengths and weaknesses and put them in a position to leverage the former and minimize the latter.
· Trouble Giving Negative Feedback
This is probably my toughest issue. I'm great at telling people when they've done a good job, but awful at criticizing any effort. In order to overcome, I've started hiring only those folks who have a deep, internal need for perfectionism. If you are your own harshest critic, it helps me to work around this pervasive flaw.
· Not Cultivating a Strong Culture of Analytics
I knew a CEO of a venture-backed company who swore by measuring, testing, and improving everything so rigidly, he literally told a conference of other CEOs to "fire anyone who doesn't love analytics with every fiber of their being." At SEOmoz, we do a mediocre job of measuring our own success (though things have gotten much better in the last 3 months), despite the great work we've done tracking stats and analyzing the work we do for our clients.
· Taking Things Personally
I constantly have to remind myself that even when the criticism comes hot and heavy, it's just the Internet and people are bound to be far bolder and braver than they would be offline. I've gotten better at ignoring critics of myself and SEOmoz, but I still find my heart racing and blood pounding in my ears when I see my friends taking heat - I need to keep working on that.
· Admitting that a Company is Not a Democracy
It's a dictatorship. When tough decisions come up, they're my responsibility. I've noticed that even with little things, when we take a company vote, dissent and discomfort abound. If you want to run a company with a pseudo-democracy, take everyone's opinion and input, then make the decision. You need to be able to take the blame when something goes awry, and bowing to internal pressure is no excuse.
Stereotypes & Myths About Leadership that I've Found
· A Leader Never Follows
Not true at all - leaders can follow trends, they can follow other industry notables, and they can even follow their employees. Part of building a great team and being a great leader means recognizing ability and taking inspiration from the work of others. Don't discount an idea just because someone else thought of it or refuse to follow a course just because it's been done before. Innovation is important, but excluding options out of pride is a deadly mistake.
· Only Strong Personalities Can Lead
I've met some very understated leaders in the past 5 years, and I think that I often end up having more respect for the deep intellectual than the boisterous go-getter. Maybe it's just in the geek world of web startups, but a brash personality doesn't always make for the best leadership.
· You Have to Be Tall
I must have seen dozens of studies about how most CEOs are exceptionally tall - usually more than 6'2". However, other than Bill Gurley from Benchmark (who's not even technically a CEO), I've yet to meet these gigantic CEOs in the web startup world.
Some Important Lessons
· Don't Get Too Far Removed
There have been a few instances I've seen of CEOs who got too far away from the day-to-day operations of their company and suffered for it. If you can't empathize with what your employees do, what your customers use, and what it's like to be in someone else's shoes, you might be in danger of losing your ability to lead effectively. Book your own travel sometimes and definitely take a few customer services phone calls or emails every month.
· Don't Be Afraid to Change
Just because some skill, ability, or product got you where you are today doesn't mean you should never give it up. I learned this lesson when SEOmoz struggled to choose between many large, lucrative consulting projects and the premium content model. While we still do a small amount of the former, it's clear that premium was an excellent business decision.
· Delegation is Your Greatest Ally
Don't ignore the power of others to do your work for you. If you're good at hiring and inspiring the best from your staff, delegating even the tough, important jobs is a wise decision. Many times, you'll see the true value of an employee when times are tough.
· Sometimes, It's Just a Tempest in a Teapot
I can remember dozens of times when I felt like the world was crashing down around me - that I could barely hold up another day. I think all CEOs probably need to have those experiences a few times before they start to recognize that nothing is as bad as it seems, the sun's coming up tomorrow, and time heals more than you think it could. That employee who's struggled the last few months may indeed turn things around. The client who hasn't paid might just need a little extra contact. The product that's not taking off yet could, with a few tiny fixes, soar.
For those interested, I received an email from Richard Durnall that an interview he conducted with me last week is up on his site. I actually thought that although broad in subject matter, it turned into a good piece.
p.s. Happy MLK Day, everyone. Here's an old post with some good links to help commemorate.
p.p.s. Couldn't help but submit to YCombinator News - currently my favorite social news source.
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