I have been a CEO for 45 years. That’s with two companies – Acxiom Corporation, world leader in data mining and its accompanying technology, which we grew from 25 employees in Arkansas to 7,000 employees worldwide, with $1.5 billion in annual revenue; and First Orion, my present company, a now 10-year-old tech startup that provides call blocking and scam protection to the major telecoms. In the past 18 months we’ve been growing like crazy – so much so that we’ve just broken ground for our own headquarters building in Little Rock, Arkansas.
After so many years, people often ask me what I’ve learned about being a successful CEO, and the fact is, I have to think about it; at this point, so much of what I do is instinct and second nature. But after giving the matter considerable thought, I’ll say this: The success of a CEO is as much –or more – about the people the CEO works with as it is the CEO him- or herself.
You may possess all the leadership skills in the world, but you’re never going to be a strong CEO unless you have a strong team around you. And what does “a strong team” mean? To me it means unquestioned competence. It means working well with me and with one another. It means having what I call “a community of common knowledge.” And at the base of it all must be a foundation of trust.
Today, many of my top executives at First Orion – as well as some of our key investors – also worked with me at Acxiom. That tells you two things: They trust me, and I trust them. I think of them as people who, were I in trouble in a foreign country and asked them to come, would get on the very next plane. And they know I would do the same for them.
But trust goes beyond character. Every day I trust them to do their jobs competently, to not make some mistake that could bring the company down. By that I don’t mean that they’re not allowed to fail; we all fail from time to time, probably a little every day, because we’re attempting to do hard things in the brave new world of mobile technology. But we learn from our failures, and we keep innovating. That’s a key to our corporate culture. What I want to avoid, and what I meant above, was that I trust my CFO, say, not to make some mistake in filing taxes or other documents that could bring about an IRS audit, which – I know from experience – can grind a company to a standstill. I trust my people’s competence.
Hiring good people is my business rule number one. I scour the universities to identify their top grads, and I scan the horizon to recruit the smartest, most talented people in our field. Of course I expect them to be able to work with me, and me with them. My way of working is to establish a mutually understood mission and strategy, and then for the most part to get out of their way, with occasional checks to make sure everything continues to go well.
Most smart, talented people have egos, and I respect that. I have an ego too. But I don’t want to see ego clashes getting in the way of our mission. Tech companies have to be nimble and flexible, and that means no petty little fiefdoms blocking our ability to innovate. Today’s tech company is an organism whose cells join and divide as needed to make us stronger –that is, we’re always forming ad hoc teams or units to tackle portions of our overall mission. But we once had a Chief Technology Officer who threw tantrums every time one of “his” people was pulled into some new working group, and I had no patience for that; he’s no longer with us. Any one bad team player can create grief for everyone else. So today’s CEO, especially in tech companies, must establish a flexible structure and make sure it stays as flexible as it needs to be.
This is where the community of common knowledge comes in. A tightknit team will know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses – and we all have both. The goal is to accentuate the strengths and play down the weaknesses. We have a new scam protection project that has to be crashed through in two weeks. Who are the very best people to put on that team? In a way, it’s like the old TV show Mission: Impossible. You consider the mission and then choose your team accordingly. Except that in the fast-paced tech world we now live in, you have multiple missions going on at the same time. You’re always forming new teams to take on new challenges.
Any current CEO who thinks his or her role is to be the god on high is, I think, doomed to failure. That era is now history. We’re in a hands-on world. A CEO’s role today is all about achieving common goals, and in a spirit of teamwork and cooperation.
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