Real Leaders

I Was Fired As The CEO Of My Own Company. Here’s What I Did Next

Firespring is Nebraska’s first certified B-Corporation, and helps organizations identify their purpose and bring it to life. Their media company offers a range of services, from creative and print production to marketing campaigns, and culture alignment solutions. The company was recently ranked #87 on the 2020 Real Leaders Impact Awards, but there was a time when they almost failed.

During Firespring’s infancy, a catastrophic financial event occurred. Board members asked founder and CEO Jay Wilkinson to lay off 80 percent of their employees. “I refused to do it,” says Wilkinson. “I dug in my heels and wouldn’t do it.” After this firm stance of defiance, and in an unusual turn of events, his board fired him as the CEO of his own company. 

Wilkinson, a serial entrepreneur of more than 20 companies, explains that he was left disheartened by the board’s decision. What could he possibly tell the people of his company, that he considered his greatest assets? Little did he know what he was about to say to them would transform the company forever. 

“That’s when I first learned the power of just throwing it out there, let’s be real here, let’s call crap, crap.”

He gathered all the staff into a room and explained precisely what was going on. To his surprise, the staff members understood the circumstances and remained determined to keep the company going, even offering to take a cut in pay to keep everyone together. Wilkinson recalls: “That’s when I first learned the power of just throwing things out there. I thought, ‘let’s be real here, let’s call crap, crap.”’ After this surprising intervention, the staff of Firespring rallied together to become financially solvent again. “It was really due to everything being put openly on the table,” he continues. “Everyone knew exactly where we stood.”

Listen to Episode 55 of the Real Leaders Podcast to learn how they overcame failure with vulnerability:

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“There’s no human who doesn’t want to be a part of something. And that’s what good leaders like to create.”

During their darkest hour, it was transparency, vulnerability, and inclusivity that the staff of Firespring leaned on. Asked about the merits of this style of leadership, Wilkinson ponders for a while, and then says one word: “Inclusive.”

“The word inclusive may be the word best suited to a particular style of leadership that’s not about leaders and followers,” he says. “This entails introducing a vision into a situation and letting the staff fill that vision — collectively. Everybody wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, it’s a natural human desire, and that’s what good leaders want to create.”

Now, more than 20 years later, Firespring has over 180 employees and 3 offices — Lincoln & Omaha, NE and Council Bluffs, IA. 

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