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Lead by Example
Morgan agrees with both Gross and Layfield that talking to employees is key.
“The first thing I did was listen to people, get a sense for what’s good in the organization. Because of my background at AdvancedMD, I use a lot of medical metaphors and one that fits is the doctor’s Hippocratic oath of ‘First, Do No Harm.’ That means taking what’s good and leveraging it to the future, even while making the changes you want to make. There’s a combination of getting the right people around you, making sure the right people on the bus are in the right seats and creating a compelling reason for change,” Morgan says.
“A lot of skill, judgment and savvy come into play when you begin serving as a CEO,” Gross says. “You have to assess the organization’s existing culture and find out what’s important to its employees. You need to form your own trusted team of advisers. Once you do that, you begin to form an outline of core values and objectives that you want to accomplish, and invite your team to help do that. Include in that team [people] with a vested, and invested, interest. Start to build a plan of what you’re going to do. Redefine the vision of the organization if needed, and see if the mission statement conforms to that. If not, tweak it.”
“It’s easy to talk to and communicate with your smaller management teams, but harder with large numbers,” Layfield says. Backcountry.com has more than 750 employees, so involving every one of them in a face-to-face meeting is impossible. Layfield says that’s one reason those key management people need to be communicators as well. “You have to worry about creating conversations in the wind.”
Passing the Torch
Another key ingredient in the recipe for a successful leadership transition is support of the founder who is stepping down or moving to a new position. Paul Doscher, CEO for LucidWorks, a consulting company based in Redwood City, Calif., says founders are entrepreneurs, the ones who have put their hearts and souls into a company’s creation. Relinquishing the day-to-day decision making can be “a tough thing for a founder to wrap his head around.”
Fortunately, that hasn’t been a problem for either Layfield or Morgan.
“Jim said to me that the definition of a great leader is that when they leave the room, they’re energized,” Layfield says of Holland. “He’s been totally supportive of what we’ve been doing for more than a year.”
“Scott’s been great,” Morgan adds, talking about Johnson. “He let me come in, take over and supports me in what I’ve been doing. He’s also been very helpful. He brings to the table the organizational history and DNA, and brings perspective to it. So many founders can’t let go, but not here.”
Of course, the team also needs to buy into those new ideas for a CEO to be effective. Knowing the new executive has the founder’s support, and seeing changes implemented with the input of the whole team, will boost employee confidence.
“The inertia and gravitational pull is to kind of keep doing what you’re already doing,” Morgan says. “You have to build a case for change, realizing that what got you ‘here’ may not be what it takes to get you ‘there’. It certainly helps to have credibility of having done that—knowing a little about the journey without being perceived as a know-it-all. You don’t make changes just for change’s sake. The key is to tap into the values and components that are already there. Connect with your team as a leader. When you have a good company to start with, which I did here, it helps. People rise to the top, emerge as leaders and have the knowledge, experience, passion and vision to take it forward.”
He says one fact is undeniable in any transition.
“I always get asked about my relationship with Scott, who is the company’s founder,” Morgan says. “Founder is the only title that you keep for life. You will never be called the ‘former founder.’ So it’s always to their credit when a company’s founder is willing to work with new leadership, as Scott has. We couldn’t move forward as new leaders without that support from those who created these companies.”
What does it take to be a great boss?
What are the traits of an effective CEO?
“The most important thing is having lots of energy,” says Jill Layfield, Backcountry.com CEO. “I’m aware that my energy and attitude is infectious. It’s so important for CEOs to have that and to set the tone. People like to follow those who are aggressive.”