Year One as CEO: What I’ve Learned
Here’s what I learned on Day One at Marketo: even after more than two decades in Marketing, Sales, and GM roles—having worked in the C-suite at multiple companies and counseled a number of global chief executives, nothing could have fully prepared me for becoming a CEO for the first time.
It used to be that a new CEO had a grace period. In your first weeks and months on the job, you were expected to embark on a listening tour, taking time to get to know your team, products, and customers. You would make incremental changes at the outset—just enough to hint at your leadership style, but not so big as to make waves.
That luxury no longer exists. Technology is disrupting and reshaping the marketing industry every day. The landscape is incredibly unsettled. Our customers are faced with more opportunity—and risk—than they’ve ever faced before. And they rightfully expect their service providers to cut through the complexity with elegant, powerful tools that meet their goals.
Over the course of my first year, I took notes on the core lessons I learned. Going forward, these notes will serve as my “North Star” as we continue to transform Marketo into an even more global organization that helps companies thrive in what I call the Engagement Economy—a new era that puts the onus on businesses to engage with customers on their terms. And since marketing is far from the only industry facing this level of disruption, I believe these observations will be a useful guide to almost any new CEO.
Passion for the Purpose
From minute one on the job, you’ll need to inspire and engage people, rallying them around a purpose. What you’ll find is that no matter how hard you lean in, some people just don’t want to go along for the ride. That’s why the first thing any software company needs is a passionate, engaged team that cares deeply for its customers. They understand that the organization only exists because customers choose to support it, so they must form a team that reflects exactly that level of commitment.
One tip for finding those who want to be engaged: Look for people who are passionate about things outside of work. To me, the people who go all-in on their interests outside of the office bring that fire with them inside the office and focus it on finding solutions and serving our customers with an equal sense of fervor.
Don’t Let Reality Get in the Way of Opportunity
We’ve all had a similar moment of frustration in a meeting: someone comes up with an idea for a brilliant solution. It elegantly solves a problem and delivers something of real value to your customers. Everyone in the room is excited… until reality smacks you in the face. The reality may be that the timeline for building the product is unrealistic or that there’s no room in the budget to fund it. Or it may be that it doesn’t seem feasible until three other priorities are addressed first.
The most common response to this problem is to acknowledge the reality and put the idea on a future “wish list,” ultimately avoiding the tough conversation that is the very thing your team needs you to lead. Don’t take the lazy approach – push harder! The job of the CEO is to push and prod. To dig beneath the surface and empower people to creatively solve problems. Extend your meeting an hour. Challenge your team to not leave the room until a solution emerges. And, most importantly, get right into the trenches with them to help figure it out.
Never Be Lukewarm
I can work with people who have a negative attitude. Sometimes they can be a useful foil, forcing me to consider all angles of a problem and come up with better solutions. But I absolutely can’t stand people who are lukewarm. If there’s a fire, I don’t want people who stand there and tell me there’s a fire. Either run toward it and help or get out of the way.
I love creative tension. If I’m in a meeting and someone disagrees with my approach, I say bring it. And I try to hold myself to the same standard. If someone brings me an idea or a solution for a challenge they have identified, I don’t want them to walk away from my desk without feeling like we have a resolution or an action plan.
Rock the Boat and Challenge Norms
From day one, I made it clear that Marketo team members have an extraordinary opportunity. With our scale, products, and customer base, we can do more than ride the wave of technological change—we can lead it. But we can’t do it if we believe in the old fallacy that the thing that worked yesterday will work tomorrow.
In any large organization, you’ll find people who are excited to shake things up and push themselves, their teams, and their companies to be better… and you’ll find others who are generally happy with the status quo and don’t feel any urgency to change. A CEO’s job is to identify those who are willing to take risks, rock the boat and then give them the chance to shine. Promote them to a job that’s just a bit beyond their reach and let them push themselves.
Follow the One Lesson That Matters Most
It’s impossible to do all of the things I’ve described without ruffling some feathers. And that’s ok—if it’s done respectfully and humbly. No CEO should walk around thinking their title means they have all the answers. And even if you come in as a change-maker, make sure to study your company’s history, spend time listening to the team you now lead, and keep an open mind.
Ultimately, I’ve found that any CEO is only as good as the people around him or her. Building consensus while boldly leading a new team through change is much easier said than done for any leader. Yet, in this age of disruption, it’s the ultimate measure of almost any CEO’s success. And it leaves us with the one lesson learned that matters most: Be brave. Be fast. Be bold.