While starting any new role can be daunting, starting or reinventing an entire company can feel equal parts exhilarating and downright terrifying. Lined with countless decisions, each which will directly impact the fate of your company, the winding path of an entrepreneur is one of thrilling wins, sleepless worry-filled nights, and unexpected detours.
Over the past 25 years, I have scaled three organizations, reinventing my current company over the past decade into the leading player in the educational technology market with 10-fold growth. Over the years, (and from more high highs and low lows than I care to revisit!), I have learned a tremendous amount about leadership and the habits that support personal happiness and fulfillment. The nuggets below are a few I’ve held onto over the years and are shared to help other entrepreneurs and leaders on their paths.
1. Swallow your pride
Early in my career, I was assigned to manage a test prep center and had no idea where to start to improve margins. A freshly-minted MBA, I quickly realized my “training” had nothing on the experience of the folks who knew the climate best, so I went to the source and asked the employees about the areas they saw that needed improvement. By swallowing my pride and merely implementing their suggestions, we doubled sales.
Your ideas aren’t always going to be the best in the room, and that’s a good thing. Surround yourself with the most driven, talented team possible, and open yourself to their different strategies and ideas. Nobody knows everything, and there is always an opportunity to learn from others or to find different paths to reach the same conclusion. Taking the time to be open-minded and seek guidance will make a massive difference in your business, and the lessons you learn from listening will serve you well down the road.
2. Deepen your phone-a-friend bullpen
As CEO you’re called upon as final arbiter, and it can be easy to default to believe your way is always the best. While confidence and decisiveness are essential, so is humility. All humans need help and support, and I have found enormous personal and professional benefit in being part of a strong peer network, (for me, it’s been YPO), which provides a sounding board and valuable outside industry perspective.
3. Play the long game
Fight the (often powerful) urge to focus solely on near-future goals such as next quarter’s earnings. While this focus is understandable in the scrappy, “are-we-gonna-make it to next month” environment of a new venture, this myopic approach can be disastrous in the event of an unforeseen challenge, such as a recession. Taking a long-term approach requires sustainable planning, a heck of a lot more work and, in many cases, less immediate monetary gratification. But investment in long-term talent and thoughtful R&D spending can make your company uniquely prepared to weather disasters that topple short-sighted companies. The downturns don’t look quite as bad if you’re able to put things into perspective and focus on success in the long run.
4. Be thankful for negative feedback
Who doesn’t love a negative performance review?! I’m kidding, but only somewhat. The best way to grow and improve is to regularly seek out feedback, digest it without defense, and seek meaningful ways to incorporate it. What does this look like? In my organization, I invite all 1000+ of my employees to rate my job performance in an anonymous, company-wide annual survey.
In the spirit of transparency and to demonstrate my commitment to self-improvement, I report the scores and unfiltered comments out to the entire company. As a result of this process, I’ve had my eyes opened many times to blind spots I’d been missing, and this feedback has helped ensure we’re doing everything we can to make our culture as inclusive as possible. In publishing and implementing this thoughtful feedback, I’ve seen positive changes in workplace culture and my effectiveness and as a leader.
5. Value people over profit
As backward as this may sound, I’ve found that an all-consuming focus on profit can cripple your for-profit company. In reflecting on the factors driving outsize growth for my current for-profit company, I attribute much of that success to the values and principles that guided me in my previous role as CEO of a nonprofit. Similar to a nonprofit, the culture at my company is heavily mission-focused, and our employees are committed to a shared vision of improving the world of education for teachers and students. With every decision we make, our first consideration is the impact on the people we serve. Ensuring we are living our values and doing right by our stakeholders is a win-win, helping us recruit and retain employees aligned to and fulfilled by our mission and strengthening trust with our customers.
6. Prioritize hiring and happiness
I cannot stress this enough – your employees are the backbone of your company and will make or break it. A talented individual can elevate an entire team, champion a game-changing new technology, or have a conversation with a customer that puts your company on the map. When I say I am talent-obsessed, I mean it, and I allocate my time accordingly. As CEO, I spend more than 50 percent of my time focused on bringing the top talent to our organization, and I interview every final candidate – no small commitment when you consider we’ve already welcomed nearly 300 new team members this year! Invest the time to find the candidates who match not only for skills, but more importantly, culture and mission, and you will stack your organization with a team committed for the long-haul.
Once you’ve hired the best employees, you want to make sure that they are happy, supported, and motivated to do their jobs. For example, I believe companies must recognize the fundamental importance of paying employees fairly, so we decided to voluntarily raise Curriculum Associates’ minimum wage to $15 / hour in 2015.
Inclusive workplace culture is key to employee happiness, and with nearly two-thirds of our employees working remotely, we recognize how important it is to create cohesion when there isn’t a physical location to connect. As a result of our employees’ insightful feedback, we’ve launched some excellent practices to foster inclusion, such as formal meet-ups to create a sense of community for remote workers and a virtual map to make it easier for team members to connect, among other things. Considering the lived experiences of your employees – from their first interview to their benefits to their physical workspace – will help you build a talented, loyal, and well-supported workforce and happy employees stick around.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Like all of you, I continue to add leadership lessons to my toolkit every day. My hope in sharing the foundational habits that have served me well helps you curate a playbook to prepare for the exciting challenges and opportunities ahead.