You Aren’t Born Knowing How to Be a CEO
Brett Hurt, former CEO and co-founder of Bazaarvoice stands before an audience of fellow Founders at CEO Summit and declares that they’re in for a rough, but exhilarating — ride. “You guys don’t know much. I don’t know that much more than you do. You aren’t born knowing how to either found a company or be a CEO. You aren’t born knowing how emotional this journey can be.”
Being a founder and being a CEO are not the same thing. A founder brings an idea into the world. A CEO sets direction while building and motivating an entire organization to capitalize on the opportunity. However, when a great founder becomes a great CEO, incredible things happen. They push and inspire. They constantly reinforce the vision and can lead from a place of authenticity that simply can’t be replicated.
With five companies of his own and a slew of advisory and Board roles under his belt, Hurt has distilled his CEO experiences into a handful of vital principles. With his belief that the experience itself is what matters most in the transition from founder to CEO, Hurt shares the lessons from his own adventures in company building.
Carry the Torch for Long-Term Vision
As Hurt describes, the CEO is a unique functioning role. He or she is the “synthesis point” where all vectors of the organization come together. “The CEO has the ability to look across the company and reinforce the vision.” Illuminating this path time and time again can be done on a range of scales. From holding coffee hours and book clubs to understanding the right time to sell the company, vision and long-term goals should be part of the constant conversation.
Hurt recounts his own experience with this: “We had the opportunity to sell Bazaarvoice many times. We could have sold it for twenty five million dollars when it was a year old. There are certain people in Austin, where I’m from, that would have said, ‘Hey, congratulations.’ Instead, we created a company worth about six hundred million dollars with eight-hundred people and lots of economic ripple effects as a result.”
Revealing vulnerability is counterintuitive for a CEO. In such an exposed role, it can feel as though demonstrating anything other than strength is seen as flawed, maybe even broken. Hurt argues that this is not the case: “Certainly, human beings work at your company, none of them are perfect. They’ll respect you for actually admitting when you’ve made a mistake. They’ll model it. You won’t have an air of bullshit in your company.”
Disseminate Culture from the Top
It’s often said that reinforcing culture throughout an organization is important - something worthy of both founder time and energy. Hurt is adamant that once a founder takes on the role of CEO, the advancement and immortalization of culture falls upon their shoulders. Everything you do as a leader of a hyper-growth company will be interpreted by the team. Hurt elaborates, “If you’re the founder and CEO, you actually started that company. You chose to breathe a soul into a new being... you can constantly remind people of the importance of building a strong soul into your company. There’s no one else but you that has the power to do that.”
Hurt suggests putting this concept into action by holding team discussions. He encourages spending time analyzing every perspective of the company and approaching this process much like a strategy session. This exercise involves holding a magnifying glass to your recruiting process and core values, as well as the metrics and achievements celebrated internally. “At Bazaarvoice, we spend about a fourth of every offsite on that topic [culture] every quarter. Out of that popped some really brilliant stuff...it’s the process of debate that was brilliant, just like how the process of debating strategy creates more brilliant strategy.”
Constantly Learn & Self-Reflect
Ever heard the saying, “Lead by example”? It is the responsibility of the CEO to embody this mantra from day one and it's easy to forget in startups. In order to execute this successfully, the CEO need to constantly self-improve and educate him or herself. “You need to be the standard bearer for the rest of the company. You’re in this constant journey to learn.” Hurt approaches learning by seeking out mentoring from others — in everything from culture to sales. He advises finding a great CEO coach. “Getting mentors all over the place, talking to anybody that will speak to you that’s become more successful [than] you in whatever area it is...having the humility to talk to them is awesome because you’ll learn.”
As a matter of fact, Hurt had three coaches for the IPO at Bazaarvoice alone: one for Q&A, one for presentations and a third for earning calls. That’s dedication to mentoring.
Alongside this constant consumption of new information, Hurt highlights the importance of creating space to reflect. For Hurt, this means taking five to six weeks of vacation. “Sometimes on vacation I’d realize, ‘I’m carrying the wrong person on my executive team.’ There’s actually a little bit of [a] joke that formed when I come back from vacation. Usually someone gets fired. That’s true — but someone could get promoted too! Not having your nose so close to the grindstone — being able to step back and look at the big picture — leads to better company decisions overall.”
Recruiting Should Be a Top Priority (No, Really)
Reflecting on his time as CEO, Hurt emphasizes that there is no better way to enforce culture and values than by the way you hire. “You’ll be most defined as the CEO by the people [who] report to you. That’s going to be your brand.” Moving quickly at startup speed brings out the true integrity of your hires — both the good and the awful. 100 mph work speed is where your top players step up, the people Hurt describes as “born to change the world.”
The individuals you choose to bring onto the team speak volumes. With each new hire, the CEO reinforces the values of the company, highlighting the traits perceived as most valuable for the organization. The same concept is applicable to firing. Hurt clarifies, “If you fire brilliant jerks, it says to everybody, ‘that’s not going to be condoned.’ If you hire people that have real passion, love your calling, it’s going to feed on itself.” The CEO sets the tone.
If you fire brilliant jerks, it says to everybody, ‘that’s not going to be condoned.’ If you hire people that have real passion, love your calling, it’s going to feed on itself.
Careful consideration is necessary for recruiting board members as well. This is incredibly important and often forgotten — you’re selecting the individuals who can guide strategy and focus, and serve as a trusted sounding board. Board members are a lot harder to fire if you make a mistake. “If you really spend the time talking to their references and really spend time taking them out to dinner and really getting to know them, you should know if they’re a fit. Don’t get star struck.”
At Bazaarvoice, Hurt took a literal page out of Marc Benioff’s book, Behind the Cloud, to set and align goals. His strategy involved creating overarching corporate goals and then empowering each level of the organization to build their own within this umbrella. With this system, team and individual goals all play into one unified mission. As a synthesis point, the CEO can lead the charge on this strategy and move all company efforts in the same direction.
For Hurt, mastering these initiatives has taken dedication and what he calls “constant reinvention.” He recommends a few good starting points to help others down their own paths:
- Behind the Cloud by Marc Benioff
- Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott
- The Corporation, a documentary