Thursday, October 30, 2008

Common beliefs in CEOs

Two nights ago I sat on a panel at Stanford Business School called "Getting to the Top" - the view of CEOs. This panel is part of a series designed for middle management wanting to figure out how to grow their careers and what skills they need to acquire to achieve their ambitions. It was, as these things often are, great fun. The other CEOs were all very different - a large company CEO, an engineering CEO and a flamboyant marketing CEO of a startup - and me - and we were presented with a set of questions to answer and then rif from before taking questions from the audience.

The questions were pretty generic, for example: What are the skills a CEO most needs? What skills have been most useful to you? What advice would you give in working with a board? etc.

The thing I found most interesting was how two factors were consistently in common between the four of us: leadership and the quality of our people.

We talked about leadership in terms of having the courage to act, having passion and a vision, listening to your conscience over advice you receive - on top of the usual management skills - but the number of times the word "passion" was used was wonderful.

But more importantly the theme of the quality of your team was resonant: don't compromise in the quality of your people, if you've made a mistake let the person go quickly, have integrity with your team, keep looking until you find a world class person for the position you are filling. This is a particular passion of mine and I am rigorous (and ruthless) about hiring practises - as I have posted on in my Startup to IPO series before - and about performance.

As an aside: one of the five FirstRain Values is "Demand Uncompromising Quality" - and when I first worked on the values I had added "in your people" because I believe so strongly that the quality of a company is solely rooted in the quality of the people. In that case my HR guys backed me down to the simpler form, but I still add the "in your people" phrase in my head.

Finally, when I am on a panel in the evening I always try to weave humor into my answers because it's late, people are giving up personal time to be there and so it should be fun as well as educational. So on the question "Are there any disciplines you wish you had more experience with now that you are a CEO?" I answered "Yes, self discipline" - and took the opportunity to tell a few self-depreciating, humorous stories. Life is too short to take everything seriously.

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