4 lessons from my first 9 months as CEO

In this slightly up close and personal post, I outline 4 things I’ve learned with a major work and life change. This post is aimed to walk through a few main points of reflection or possible recommendations when the time comes for anyone to take on a new and challenging opportunity. 

Now, this is based on my own experience 9 months in as the CEO of SlashData. It’s a few things I recommend someone to consider when changing roles, maybe you are becoming a first-time manager, taking on a larger team, and/or becoming a parent. 

If you prefer the executive summary, the gist is: Whatever change you may be planning to make in your personal life and career, it’s my personal experience that you should start preparing early, but be ready for surprises along the way. You shouldn’t start a new role on day one – think about what you can do ahead of time to make the transition smoother. Especially in leadership roles, you might have become the manager, good for you! But, on the flip side, everyone has to have you as a manager now. For more context, keep reading. 🙂 

#1 Plan everything but be ready for surprises.

Some sayings are cliche for a reason. You know what they say, how life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans? Well, I felt the irony of that one when I found out I was pregnant 1 week after taking over as CEO. Travelling to my first board meeting, sick as a dog and not able to say anything because it was too early and the doctor’s advice is to keep it between you and your partner for a while. Obviously I want a family, so this was great, but we have to admit, the timing is also funny. I mean, I didn’t even get a headstart before the nausea sunk in. 

That said, having seen other women have children and come back from pregnancy leave and continue to grow in their roles successfully, gave me a lot of encouragement. I look up to the women both at SlashData and not, that have done this before me, especially before the era of remote working having to wear business suits and pumps. I can only imagine what it would have been like to be up at 7am and get panty hose on with the belly and swollen feet. Even in the world of remote working though, having a family and working full-time is really an accomplishment for any working parent. Fingers crossed I do it well.

#2. Don’t wait till day one.

I was very lucky to have a founder that was open  to me “soft-launching” the role 3 months early. Taking over a leadership role should always have some overlap or shadowing. Since I was already part of the Leadership Team I was very attuned to the ins and outs, but the relationship dynamic changed with me and my colleagues. If you are moving into a new management role, you need to understand and comprehend, there is a relationship shift between you and everyone you will be working with. I hope you expect this before you take the role. Actually let me say things a bit differently. If you really want to be liked by everyone you work with, don’t take the job, it’s going to be very disappointing. Not everyone will be happy you have been promoted and that’s ok. If you are lucky someone will be excited, but people need time to adjust and you will need to give it to them. 

Changes like this need to happen in steps. If you can, advocate to allow some time to shadow, be present in your predecessor’s 1-2-1s with your future reports and in cross team meetings. Be aware of what’s being discussed within the leadership team (or the team you will be taking on) and how things are being addressed. Decide what you care about keeping within the agenda and if you might change something, prepare your thoughts as early as possible. Once you take over, have open discussions with your direct reports on what they also think about what they would like to keep, change, or what’s missing for them.

On the one hand, people needed time to adjust, while others had nearly immediate expectations. Be aware, people will not be as open with you once they know you will be the new boss. They won’t tell you directly things you might have discussed openly just a few days earlier. This was something I didn’t consider ahead of time, from the day colleagues were notified, some saw me in a different light. There was an immediate expectation that I would be a different person, take a different approach as to how I communicate, even if they had known me for years. They weren’t as candid any more, they may have been more protective of their opinions, which also meant I needed now to be more careful how I spoke about the future of the company or a new project. Was I speaking hypothetically or sharing a plan that they should expect and take action on? Things change when you take over. It may take some time for you to adjust to this new reality. I took the honest approach, which I recommend. Open communication to explain that the adjustment is on both sides, you also need time to adjust to the new expectations from your new direct reports. Ask for that time from those that may have immediate expectations from you. You probably won’t fit their expectations anyway, your leadership style will be different from your predecessor and the leadership style of others on your team. Ask for that time to find your bearings.

#3. Let your team tell you what to do

Even more importantly for me before I took over, was taking over a strategic workshop we run a couple times a year. This would be a type of all hands meeting for the Leadership team. If you can, take this over early and design it to fit what you need it to achieve.

I took over the last one in Q4 of the previous year. 

Even though I hadn’t officially started, I was able to re-design the structure of the meeting to fit what we needed for everyone to feel aligned. They needed not just to be aware of where we are going in my first year as CEO, they needed to own the direction. You’ve taken over, but everything is not about you or what you think should happen right now. Create the opportunity and the safe space for your new team to build your next steps together. You should have an opinion, but let them bring up the issues, and jointly decide on a plan to address them. Let them suggest what your priorities are, chances are you will agree with them too. 

Was it perfect? No of course not, I’m a newbie afterall. But, the time was extremely well spent. I planned a workshop that would set the pace for the next year. Everyone gave feedback for improvement, but also said they felt we were more aligned than ever and they knew what to expect in the next year. What everyone seemed to feel at the end of it was above all clarity about what’s next. For a new CEO, I couldn’t ask for more than that. Doing this BEFORE I took over, was 100% the right move. We all brought up the issues, we collaboratively came up with the plan with actions on what to do about them for the next year. We are still executing things we decided in that meeting, 9 months later.

#4 Life happens to everyone, even you

Now it’s possible you may be reading this while I’m off on my maternity leave. Yes, I took the job and 9 months in, I’m taking some time to have a baby. I plan to be in touch and have created a schedule for my leave to allow for time off and check-ins with the team, but I will be 100% off for some time and I know the leadership team has things covered in my absence. After that, we’ve planned a schedule to manage all the major events of Q4 and annual strategic planning to allow me to be on a half time schedule. That said, this is not a model I am advocating for others. This is simply what I felt would work for me at this moment. I have the help and support from my partner and family to allow me to have a flexi-schedule. All parents should have the opportunity and the right to take as much leave as they need while building their families.

It’s up to us to define what leadership and mother-hood looks like. As a first-time mother, and CEO I know I won’t have it all figured out the first time round, but looking at all the women that have done it before me and watching everyone at SlashData take their place in moving the company forward, it gives me the comfort and confidence that I can take the time I need. I always thought I would step back from career progression when I had a family, as it turns out I’m pressing the gas pedal instead.

Our 7 Core Values: SlashData stripped bare

Over the last 4 years, we’ve spent thousands of hours building the culture at SlashData, one step at a time. There is no better picture of the culture than the values that underpin it. In this article, I strip SlashData bare, describing in great detail our values and the behaviours that underscore them, that is the blueprint for our culture, who we are, and what guides our behaviour.

In his book Traction, Gino Wickman describes values as “a small set of vital and timeless principles for your company…These core values define your culture and who you truly are as people”.

Values guide a number of important activities at SlashData:

– Hiring: Every person that we hire has to be a good fit for our culture. No fit, no hire, even for the highest of performers. We never sacrifice the cultural fit to hire primadonnas. I’ve made many mistakes hiring people based on performance, thinking that their cultural fit will improve over time.

– Reviews: Every six months we assess performance and cultural fit for every team member. We offer guidance on where to improve, how to tap into your hidden strengths, and whether you are observing the company values. We used to have a bonus scheme for how closely a team member would observe values, but we’ve made that depend on performance only for a simple reason. If you’re not observing our values, that’s a deal-breaker, our relationship is not going to work out.

– Benefits: Among other benefits, we award people for every year they’ve been with us. The list of benefits is informed by our values; awards include ways for team members to contribute to a charitable cause, to take up a new learning course

– How we work with customers: we treat our customers with the same respect, dependability and attentiveness as we treat our colleagues. 

– Business decisions: Our 3-year business strategy is informed primarily from helping people grow, not from returning a profit to the business. People growth comes before profit, and profit comes before revenues. We’re not VC-backed, so we don’t have to return astronomical growth just because a VC partner asked. Profit takes precedence over revenues, making sure that we run a business that can function well and can spend time on developing people and having fun together. And people growth takes precedence over profit. For people to grow, their role has to grow, and as a small company, that means our business needs to grow to create new opportunities for our team members.

What are the values and the behaviours that underscore them? Here’s the full, unfiltered list. If you ‘re competing with us, go ahead and copy us. And if you like what you see come and join us

High Performers

Behaviours:

  • We ‘re a team of high performers.
  • We pay attention to detail, always striving to deliver top quality work.
  • We are adaptable: as part of a growing team, we try out new things, we create new processes, and we adapt ourselves as the needs of the business change.
  • We focus on what’s important and stick with it. We define our team and individual goals every year and every quarter so that every team and everyone knows what to focus on.
  • Each of us has their own, effective system for organising their work on a daily and weekly basis. 
  • We continue raising the bar with every new person joining the team – every person we hire has to be better than the average of the team.
  • We start with the end in mind: to get to the bottom of the issue, we start with what we are trying to accomplish.
  • We trust each other to be dependable and deliver on our shared goals. 
  • We deliver to our clients as we committed so that they continue to trust us.
  • Each of us assumes responsibility and doesn’t blame others or the system.
  • We play like a sports team. If I score and the team loses, I have lost. 

Always Learning

Behaviours:

  • We strive to grow as individuals, both personally and professionally, to realise our full potential.
  • We are restless to take the company to the next level. 
  • We invest in our personal development by reading books, attending courses, seminars and conferences. 
  • We learn from our projects by running post-mortems and understand what went well, what went wrong and what we can improve next time.
  • Errors and issues are there to help us improve. With each issue that we spot, we fix the process so that the issue doesn’t happen again.
  • We are a diverse team and value the uniqueness of each individual. We like to learn from each others’ experiences and perspectives. 
  • We treat every challenge as an opportunity, whether it’s about people or projects.
  • We challenge our assumptions and the way we do things.  

Play as a team (was fun)

Behaviours:

  • We help each other out when in need. 
  • We are dependable and accountable. We agree and we commit.
  • Once a year at our team event we spend 2-3 days in strictly no working time together to have fun, create memories and bond.
  • The entire team gets to meet and catch up once a week on video. 
  • We strive to maintain a positive, fun and engaging place to work. 
  • We hire people that we are proud to work with, people that we can have fun with solving complex challenges together.
  • We take time out to get to know each other, create friendships and enjoy the moment.

Humane

Behaviours:

  • We are kind to our team members. We are thoughtful. We are compassionate. 
  • We support our team members when they come to us for help
  • We welcome and support new team members. We have an extensive onboarding process, helping each new member acclimatise and feel comfortable.
  • We trust & respect each other, even if we have different opinions.
  • We practice flexitime around our core working hours, allowing everyone in the team to manage their work/life balance.
  • We actively listen and practise empathy. We take the time to listen to what someone is trying to say – and understand how they feel – rather than thinking how we will respond.
  • We criticise in private, we praise in public. Always.

Transparent

Behaviours:

  • We are transparent with every aspect of the company’s operations, except for financial information. That information is available from the day someone joins our company.
  • We are clear in our communication. We make sure everyone has understood, and has been understood.
  • We share feedback for each other immediately – within hours or days, not holding it back for months.
  • When there is a conflict, we are transparent about stating how we feel, good or bad
  • We systematically communicate with the whole team where we stand with respect to our goals and tasks
  • We communicate proactively when things don’t go as planned. If a task is likely to be late we give adequate notice to our colleagues or clients – as much notice as the delay. 

Data driven (Data driven)

Behaviours:

  • Data beats opinions in every argument and in every decision. 
  • Any investment that we make is measurable – so that we always know what to do more of and less of.
  • We ask the questions to help us understand what drives the business forward.
  • We measure the efficiency of our major meetings, how well our managers are doing, and through bi-annual staff feedback reviews, we measure how well the company is doing for the team.
  • We listen to our customers’ needs every day and we measure customer needs every six months.

Every Voice Matters

Behaviours:

  • Everyone in the team has a right to express their opinion on how the company works or should work.
  • We have regular internal reviews where everyone can voice their opinions on our culture, our managers and our performance. We don’t just read them, we act and we feedback to each other
  • We openly debate and we stand up for our opinion. 
  • We disagree and commit. We can disagree while a decision is being made, but once a decision has been made, we put our personal opinion to one side and commit to it. 
  • Our CEO organises breakfast meetings with each person in the team making sure every voice is heard.
  • Everyone can provide regular feedback about our company and raise issues anytime. 

slashdata core values

How we built a culture of accountability (aka how we treat people as adults)

Too many challenges with corporate culture are down to accountability. 

Let’s say you work in a medium-sized firm. A colleague you depend on has disappeared for the last week and won’t answer your emails. Then a VP from another team comes to you with a request you had no idea about. And your boss is too busy and can only book you in, in two weeks’ time. Have you “been there, done that”? 

I used to once run a company like this. But I was doggedly determined to improve things. Over the last 4 years we ‘ve built a culture of accountability at SlashData. I ‘d like to share the lessons we ‘ve learned along the way, hoping that more business leaders can learn from it. We ‘ve built a culture that treats people as adults, and expects people to behave as adults.

So where do you start to build a culture of accountability?

 

Right seats first

I started by setting clear expectations of where one person’s role ends, and another person’s role starts – an accountability chart. Before the accountability chart, our roles and responsibilities were people-centric. We would first choose the right people, and then allocate them the right seats i.e. responsibilities. I realised how this was the wrong way round, after reading Gino Wickman’s Traction book, which was recommended to me by a fellow entrepreneur at EO. In what it terms the Entrepreneur Operating System, Wickman proposes a strategy of “first right seats then right people”. 

That change introduced much-needed structure and clarity around people’s roles. We no longer had role overlaps, or multiple people talking to the same customer. I also found that several important roles within the company had no single person taking responsibility, and that meant that while many people were responsible for e.g. marketing, no one was accountable for it. That led to miscommunication, frustration, missed deadlines and confused customers. With fixed seats in the accountability chart, we also started to see how people could evolve in the organisation, and what career path we could offer to new people coming in. It also meant people felt much safer about their roles and responsibilities. For the history books, this is the first rendition of our accountability chart:

Handwritten Early Accountability Chart

Today we have a clear accountability chart, where we start with the seats and then select how people will evolve from seat to seat. We also leave seats empty for future hires.

Based on the top layer of that chart, soon after I put together the leadership team, consisting of the people leading the individual teams – marketing, product, tech, and so on. Today, we have a leadership team made up of seven people, including myself, and the individuals leading partnerships, product, marketing, sales, technology and people/finance. The leadership team is solely responsible for making decisions on the company’s 3-year strategy all the way to the 3-month team goals. And my role in the leadership team is not to manage (I hate that word) , but to integrate and enable them to make timely, aligned decisions and stay true to their commitments. I prefer to “lead from behind”, helping ask the right questions, rather than lead from the front, pointing the way forward. At the leadership team, our role as leaders is to bring the best out of our people. And shine the light onto their hidden strengths and help them grow.

Man fishing and quote from Lao Tzu "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime"

Image source.

OMG, no pool tables?

When VC-backed tech companies talk about culture, they advertise pool tables, dog biscuits, and gourmet coffee. Yet this is only at the very top of the pyramid or hierarchy of our needs at work. At the base of that pyramid are the safety and clarity of everyone’s individual role, their shared goals, and how their role contributes to the company’s short term and long term objectives. Goal setting and alignment is core not just to a well functioning remote team, but also to a sense of direction and purpose for everyone in the company.

Having set the record straight with the right seats, then the right people, I set out to create alignment. I’ ll never forget when four years ago we published a paper that was destined to be a flop; it was led by two different leaders in the company, who each had very different perceptions of what the research paper set out to do. Their individual goals were pointing in very different directions, and they hadn’t realised until I pulled them into the same room. By that time the work was wasted, but an important lesson was learned. If the goals of the people are not aligned, you ‘ll end up like a boat with oars moving out of sync, and going nowhere.

We started by getting all the leadership team in the same room and debating what we should achieve in the next year. We used Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), in what I thought was a major innovation at the time. That was four years ago. Today, our goals setting process stretches from 3-year goals for the company to 3 month goals for individual team members. I ‘ve talked a bit about how that process works here

One important aspect of goal setting and alignment is avoiding conflicts and negative surprises along the way. For example, if the partnerships team depends on a piece of tech integration to be built, it can say so, but unless the tech team commits to building it, that is a recipe for failure. Today, every team lead in the company needs to explicitly state for which OKRs it depends on other teams, and secure that team leader’s commitment in reciprocal OKRs. That ensures we don’t have any phenomena like “I ‘m too busy with my goals and I can’t help you” type of response. 

Goal setting creates alignment across the company, in a top-down fashion and is a key ingredient of an accountability culture. 

We treat everyone as adults, including the leadership team, expecting each member to propose and then commit to shared goals. And see these goals to fruition. We still use OKRs to transcribe our goals, but only as a form of notation. OKRs are not a process, they are the syntax of setting goals, making sure that you know where you are going, you can check if you ‘ve taken the right steps towards that direction, and that you are transparent about it. We also track OKRs every week at the leadership team level, expecting every team lead to be transparent about whether a goal is on track, falling behind, or at risk of failing. Early warnings are always better than late surprises. 

Spreadsheet with key goals for 2020

In fact, the very reason I’m writing this blog post is that I ‘ve committed to it in the eyes of the leadership team, and I don’t want to let them down. Oh, and I love working on our culture, and helping other entrepreneurs build theirs.

 

Which country are you working from today?

One of my colleagues is a traveller. She could be visiting friends in Poland this week, and then seeing her family in Lithuania next week, before returning to her home in Athens. While most tech companies would expect her to be working from a fixed seat at a fixed desk, in a glamorous building made of steel, concrete, glass and sprawling with teak furniture, we expect her to be accountable to her goals and work from wherever she feels comfortable.

Another colleague often works from Antiparos, a greek island where her husband runs a coffee shop. We used to be skeptical when people asked to work from home, but now we actually prefer that people work from wherever they feel most comfortable, as long as they are accountable to their goals, and are available at a time zone that their colleagues can communicate with them. We trust and respect our team, they are here because they want to be, not because they have to be – and we trust them to be capable of managing their own time and place of work. 

image of a laptop on a desk with a coffee cup

Photo by Neil Soni @ Unsplash

I know where you were last week

Not too long ago I used to rely on ad-hoc, infrequent meetings with my direct reports. It was the time before my divorce, when I spent practically every night waking up to attend to my younger son who hated sleeping in his own bed. Those sleepless nights, over several years, ended up destroying my memory, a causal effect I only discovered much later in life. At work, I was often teased for not remembering what we had agreed only the week before. 

Thankfully, at EO, I served on the board of a friend entrepreneur who was passionate with structured meetings (admittedly, in an OCD kind of way). Soon after I saw the benefits of turning all my work meetings into a variant of the level-10 meeting agenda, with clear accountability for past actions, and put those meetings in motion at a fixed time and date of the week. A fixed day/time of the week has numerous benefits as described in the Effective Manager book, notably accountability, predictability, but also a sense of safety that your team’s concerns and issues are being addressed in a timely manner.

Today, almost every meeting we run at SlashData is recorded in a Google Doc, where we can easily scroll down to track past actions, and hold people accountable for what they committed to in the previous week. A key component of that agenda is the Parked Issues, where, during the days leading up to the meeting any participant can raise an issue to be discussed. That means, instead of interrupting their colleagues for important but non-urgent issues, those issues will get the quality time they deserve, and the attention they need to be resolved and translated into actions.

With level-10-like meetings, accountability happens as a natural byproduct of the meeting process. We expect people to behave like adults and deliver on the commitments they ‘ve made, and we treat people as adults, checking in once a week, and getting the hell out of their way all other times.

 

The first 182 days

As the company was growing, we had to put a lot of thought and planning into onboarding new employees. To start, we had to learn from our mistakes. I “fondly” remember one of my colleagues recall how she found her “new” laptop having breadcrumbs the day she joined. Thankfully, we ‘ve come a long way since then. It’s not just the equipment, the IT setup, the induction tour, or the personalised welcome pack that each new starter at /Data receives. Each person that joins is immersed into our culture one step at a time. 

The first 6 months, or 182 days, is the introductory period. A new starter is assigned a buddy, a person who will guide them through how things work here, and help them find the right person, or the right information. In addition to the standard weekly 1-2-1’s, the manager will also check-in with the person at the end of the first month, then at 3 months, and then at the end of six months, to see how they are doing, whether their initial expectations matched up with the role in practice, and any additional support they may need to meet the expectations that were set out in the job description (borrowing from the TopGrading methodology). That way, the new starter is introduced to the culture of accountability, while the hiring team makes sure we can take out any obstacles, and help the new hire succeed.

 

Treating people as adults

Treating people as adults is making them responsible for their own goals, where they work, giving them the tools to succeed, and taking all the obstacles out of the way is part of our culture at /Data.

We ‘re on a long journey to build a role model of a culture, one brick at a time. Join us