7 Lessons From a First-Time CEO

When I joined ByteCubed last Summer as Chief Executive Officer, I was excited by the challenge and grateful for the opportunity to lead the company through what would become a year of incredible transformation. From integrating with creative agency, CHIEF, to investing in new technologies, and launching the U.Group brand—it’s been a time of tremendous personal and professional growth. As I reflect on the last twelve months, I want to share seven lessons I found critical in my first year as CEO.

1.) Get advice from others.

Before accepting the job, I reached out to my network. I sought out current and former CEOs I knew and trusted, and asked to pick their brains. When a month into my tenure we acquired CHIEF, I called a former colleague who runs a creative agency in Los Angeles. I wanted to understand the intricacies of agency culture so we could figure out how to integrate the team into our company without losing what made them unique. 

I also brought on a former CEO and communications consultant to provide an outside perspective on our integration. He became like an executive coach and sounding board—helping me work through some of our company’s most critical public-facing decisions.

Finally, I worked closely with our Founder and Board of Directors. We’re fortunate to have board members with deep subject matter expertise in finance and business operations, as well as relationships in some of our key markets. They’ve provided guidance that has been invaluable for the growth of our company, and to my success as a leader. All this is to say, you should cast a wide net. Every person in your network has a story to tell, and diversity of thought may just be your secret leadership weapon. 

2.) Trust your gut, especially on big decisions.

This has been a big one. Though it sounds contradictory to the advice above—it really isn’t. On decisions ranging from organizational structure and facilities management to branding and sales strategy, I’ve sought expert opinions from inside and outside the organization. It will come as no surprise that the advice I received was at times conflicting. At the end of the day, you have to trust your gut. Weigh what you’ve heard from others, of course, but ultimately rely on the breadth of your personal experience and let your instincts guide you. In retrospect, I’m happy to report that I was right far more often than not. That was not true when I deferred to others and ignored my gut.

3.) Investing in the team is investing in the company.

I committed early on to ramping up our benefits program. I believe that a happy and healthy team is a more productive team—and used that principle to guide early decisions. There’s a great Richard Branson quote that summarizes it perfectly: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” I couldn’t agree more. That’s why we now offer one of the most competitive benefits packages in the DC metro area. 

One thing I do wish we could have done this year was rollout a formal training and mentorship program. As someone who benefited greatly from incredible mentors early in my career, it’s important to me that we dedicate resources to making this available to all team members. This is a top priority for year two. You better believe providing strong career development and benefits programs will help you attract and retain good talent—and that makes us all better.

4.) Feedback is a gift.

Listen, I get it. Critical feedback can be tough to swallow. But it’s so important for learning and growth. Early on we set up an online anonymous inbox to field input from the full team. We encouraged folks to leave their honest and open thoughts on the integration, leadership, company culture, communication, or anything else on their minds. The responses we got were eye-opening and gave me real insight into the company’s pain-points. 

We addressed many of the anonymous comments and questions in a public forum at our Town Halls—and I encouraged people to come talk to me about their issues in person. I’ve tried very hard to show people I’m accessible, so they feel comfortable coming forward.

I’ve also made it a priority to conduct exit interviews. We had no process in place for collecting in-person feedback from departing team members, so I started doing them myself. In addition to getting valuable insights into how folks perceive the company and culture—decisions like that send a signal to the company that you’re developing an empathetic team and aren’t afraid to look at yourself in the mirror.

5.) Don’t let the critics get you down.

While feedback is a gift, there is a degree of disproportionality. Typically, folks who have something to complain about will be the first ones to deliver it. And leadership often means deciding on the “least bad” option. So, although feedback mechanisms are essential, don’t let the voice of one naysayer ring the loudest. As long as you believe in your vision for the company, and have a strong moral compass, keep moving forward—even if you ruffle a few feathers. I’ve had to remind myself of this more than a few times over the course of the year.

6.)  Turnover is okay. Don’t be afraid to let go.

Understand that with leadership changes, particularly after an acquisition, there will be turnover. To achieve the vision, organizational, team, and individual goals need to align. It’s okay for people to decide that where the new company is headed is not the same place they want to go professionally. If they’re not aligned, of course they should take an opportunity better suited for their career trajectory. Keep in mind that this natural ebb and flow provides the company an opportunity to bring in new and different skills and experience. And fresh eyes are incredibly valuable.

7.) Give yourself a break.

The last twelve months have been nothing short of a whirlwind. To mark my first year as a first-time CEO, my husband and I planned a vacation to Greece to unplug, unwind, and relax. Of course, just prior to leaving, work stress started to creep in. I was hinting to my husband that I wanted to reschedule our trip. We made a deal with each other that we’d go to Greece, as planned, but I’d spend the first half working remotely and the second half unplugged. No, this isn’t marriage advice. But it does illustrate two important points that I’ve learned this year.

One is that people (even, or rather, especially executives) should absolutely disconnect and take time away. It’s important for your mental health, family dynamic, and often breathes new life into your work upon returning to the office. Second, remote work is work. As long as I’ve got WiFi and access to email and the server, I am good to go. Some people don’t get remote, and I’m here to tell you that it works and it gives people options. And sometimes just having the option is enough to take the pressure off. 

As CEO, people need to see you taking advantage of the company’s paid time off and remote work options so they feel comfortable scheduling time away from the office too.  So yes, first-time CEO, veteran CEO, analyst, or intern…. do what you need to do. Take a break. Go for a walk. Plan a trip. Walk the dog. Your work will be there when you get back. And you’ll be more productive.

Are you marking a milestone in your career? What lessons have you learned? Share them with me on LinkedIn or Twitter. I’d love to connect. 

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