The fourth quarter of 2021 marked my first full year as CEO of the management consulting firm I cofounded in 2017 with my two partners. As with many things during the pandemic, this milestone came and went without me even noticing. I was glad it was just another day and that our team has adapted to our own new normal as things continue to change frequently, both inside our company as well as in the world around us.
That said, I recently allowed myself to pause and reflect on what my first year as a CEO meant. Stepping into the role brought many lessons along the way. Below are three of the most valuable takeaways I gained:
Lesson 1: Don’t sugarcoat challenges to your team.
Anyone will tell you I am an eternal optimist. My rose-colored glasses always see the glass as half full. Needless to say, when I stepped into my role in October 2020, things were not so rosy.
Back in 2019, our consulting firm was thriving. Then came the pandemic. It was extremely difficult when many of our clients put their work on pause, and it was incredibly painful when we had our first staff reduction. But, it was also helpful to have the time to rethink where our business was headed instead of being reactionary to our growth.
While my nature is to focus on the positive, I found that it was essential to balance the optimism (which is always there) with delivering the hard truths. As a leader, you must remember your team is smart and capable. Your job isn’t to protect them from difficulty; it’s to clearly and consistently communicate any challenges, and then be there for them as they work their way through them. You can be direct, but you can do it with kindness and compassion.
Lesson 2: Hire slow, and fire fast.
In 2021, when the business started to rebound, we needed to staff up. What I have learned is that taking time in the selection process and being obsessively selective pays off in the long run. You have to be attentive and ask the right interview questions and vet candidates to ensure your values are truly aligned. Keeping in mind our core values—have integrity, care about the greater good and get it done—I’ve gotten better at practicing intentional listening and reading in between the lines to get a sense of a person and how they would contribute and act in different situations.
That said, there are times when things don’t gel and it weighs down the entire team. In this case, I’ve learned that acting quickly and humanely is best for everyone involved. If you have team members who are showing red flags almost immediately, trying to hold onto them, giving them the benefit of the doubt or making excuses for their behavior isn’t going to solve the issue. The longer problematic behaviors persist, the more damage they can cause to the existing culture. If you’ve tried to correct behavior and the employee simply isn’t a fit, I recommend firing fast, rather than putting it off, for the benefit of all involved.
Lesson 3: Learn your business—all of it.
I am so fortunate to never be the smartest person in the room when it’s full of our employees. However, in order to truly lead an organization, leaders need to have a working understanding of what it is everyone does. This isn’t always easy, and you may have to push through some challenges, but it can help you identify both opportunities and gaps in skill sets and resources.
For example, there are times when I’m on a status call for an important project, and it sounds to me like the team is speaking in code. I have to ask clarifying questions, which not only helps me but also often helps the team slow down and refocus. They can also figure out how to break it down for potential stakeholders who might not deal in the details.
Remember to continuously learn from your team members, and strive to truly understand their talents and how they contribute to your organization and your clients.
Three things that were confirmed this year?
1. People are, hands-down, your business’s most important asset.
2. Culture needs to be intentional. If you let it be “organic,” it will likely not become the culture you want it to be.
3. Work should be fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I have read numerous times how lonely it is as a CEO, but I have never felt this way. I maintain curiosity, empathy and, yes, even eternal optimism. Couple that with a team that wants to see me succeed, and I think the next year looks bright.