When it's just you and a couple people and a garage, you're involved in everything. But when your company grows to employ hundreds of people, that style of leadership just isn't feasible any longer. So how can successful entrepreneurs make the leadership transition when their companies scale? Here's another in my series of interviews in which I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. This time I talked to David Brussin, co-founder and CEO of Monetate, a provider of cloud-based optimization and analytics technologies for online marketers.
Generally speaking, how has your role changed?
Ultimately, I'm responsible for what everyone in our organization is working on, so there's always a temptation to get into the details. In a startup you can do that--one person can stay pretty involved in what's going on.
At our stage, that's not possible. With Monetate at our current scale and stage, there's so much going on that if I try to absorb everything and always be in on every conversation, every activity, every decision...I'll fail. And I'll drive myself crazy. So it's vital that I pick the right moments in terms of my role.
So how does a CEO define the scope of his or her role, especially since the role of CEO has no boundaries by definition?
First, you have to understand what the organization needs. When I say "pick the right moments" that means understanding the ways I can best contribute to the organization.
One way is to make sure we have the right team: We've recruited and hired all the skills and experience we need to tackle our next set of challenges, the people who join our team value the same things we do in terms of how we accomplish those goals, and they fit well in our culture. Arguably my most important role is to be the steward of our team.
Another is to make sure the team works well by establishing a clear framework for alignment across the company. My job is to make sure we all know what we're trying to achieve and how we'll get there.
That's a lot easier to say than do.
Absolutely. And that's one of the primary stumbling blocks people in my role have to deal with. Because you're involved in every area and have broad visibility, you can mistakenly assume everyone else shares the same perspective. After all, you talk to all the diverse teams and know what each is working on...so it's easy to believe all those teams are connected to each other. It's easy for you to connect the dots--but not always for them.
At earlier stages, when we were 20 or 30 people, we could all sit in a room together. We had direct relationships. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing.
Those days are long gone.
That means my team really needs to help all of our teams stay connected and aligned with each another. One team may be working on something very different from another team...but they're both connected to the same goal.
What about culture? Most CEOs list culture as one of their responsibilities.
Culture is a weird word. I like to talk about the personality of our team. A team is a collection of a number of different peoples' attributes, and the one thing that ties them together is their shared belief about what's important: how we think marketing should change, how we believe Monetate is changing marketing, and what's important to us as a team about the path we take to effect that change.
We have strong beliefs about what's important about how we win. It's not victory at any costs like it may be in some cultures. It's important to be extremely clear about what we're trying to achieve, how we'll achieve it...and what's important about the way we get there.
Tell me about a way you had to grow as a leader as your company grew.
Early on, I was involved in a lot of granular decisions. Employees naturally asked for my take on how we should proceed...and sometimes I offered my take without being asked. Soon they realized I had an opinion on a lot of things, and they learned to ask me.
That meant the organization started to depend on my having a point of view on a lot of the details.
One of the first things I had to learn as we scaled was that we would not be able to grow past a handful of people unless I fundamentally changed my approach. I had to understand that I was asking people to be responsible not just for the execution but also for the outcome. So if I asked someone to lead a particular initiative, that meant they were responsible for the outcome and not just for executing a specific function.
So I had to trust them, just like their peers and reports had to trust them.
So how do you know when to dip in and when to stay back?
I try not to step on anybody 's toes unless I think we're making a misstep in one of the areas I'm directly responsible for; say, doing something not aligned with our vision or our mission, or with our core values regarding how we accomplish things. If I think we're astray in those areas, or I see a point we need to discuss, that's where I definitely need to be involved.
Otherwise, I need to make sure the right people are responsible and then get out of the way. I'm not saying that's always easy. I still have a lot of opinions. But that's what I try to do.
Yet you also say that, in some ways, changing as a leader is easy.
The one constant in a fast growing company is that the job literally changes every day. People told me to expect that when we hit 30 people, that everything would sort of break: our internal processes, communication, etc. would stop functioning well. They said it would happen at 60 employees, at 120 employees...they were absolutely right, but I still didn't truly understand it until I lived through those changes.
Every time the company doubled in size, a lot of the things that just "worked" before stopped working. I totally expect that now. I don't know exactly how my role will change, but I know that it will. So what I'm constantly looking for is to make sure I'm not doing my "old" job when the company needs me to do the new one.
On the other hand, no matter how large we get, my job will still focus on the three big areas I listed. It's the details of how you actually impact your people, your mission, and your company's personality that constantly changes.
Anything you miss about what your job was like in the early stages of the company?
I miss being in the details of the technical stuff. I contributed a lot to the design of our products and our implementation. Detail, design...I can't contribute to the same degree anymore. We now have people in those roles that are far better than I ever was.
But I still have a big impact on product, and product is something I constantly think about.
On the flip side, scale is really fun. When we have an insight on how we can help marketers, our company can bring it to market quickly and comprehensively. We couldn't when we all fit in one room.
It's also fun to see the huge impact we have on marketing. During the holidays, one-third of all dollars spent online in the U.S. ran across our platform. So when we bring something to our customers, it has a huge impact on their ability to connect with their customers. That's a scale we didn't have early on...so while I miss a few things, I love the impact we're now able to have.
And don't forget that because of my role I still get to spend time with more people on our broad teams than just about anyone else in the company. So I definitely can't complain.
Check out other articles in this series: