Octopus Venture Partner Pete Daffern has been a CEO three times over, and overseen US and EMEA operations for a handful of multi-billion dollar companies. In Parts 1 and 2, Pete outlined the key principles of his ‘Tech CEO Success Model’. Here in Part 3, we asked him this simple question: what makes a company great? This was his reply.
This has to come first. Great people make great companies. It’s that simple. But living this principle into reality can be hard. Here’s what it means: in your top team of say, seven, if one isn’t up to the job, they’re dragging the whole team down. This may be the person who’s just re-located his family to join your company. Or she may be the stellar performer who’s just not on her game these days. (These things happen, people’s performance can wax and wane.) The harsh reality is, if you don’t do right by your team and the company, the whole lot will suffer. Including the person you were trying to ‘save’, by the way. There’s just no compromise. To be great, every department must be ten out of ten. You’ve heard the maxim “hire slowly, fire fast” and “A players hire A players”. These apply here too. Surround yourself with only great people and they in turn will perpetuate your great company.
You want a team who wants to be bigger and better. Badly. But raw ambition isn’t enough. Everyone’s got to know exactly how you’re going to achieve it. Every one of them should be clear on where you are going and how you are going to get there. Punching the air and positive affirmations are all very well, but if the roadmap isn’t in place it will be aimless. Ambition needs traction.
As leader, you carry the vision. But, once formed, and agreed to, you’ve got to make sure that your whole team carries it too. If there’s any dissent, there needs to be a conversation that flushes out the lack of alignment. What isn’t clear? If there’s a disagreement that continues, then the problem is more fundamental. I’ve used this quote of Jeff Miller’s before, but that’s because it’s worth repeating: “we may not be right, but we’re not confused”.
What you’re trying to build is way bigger than the politics around the edges. So while that means that you, as CEO, don’t hesitate to look someone in the eye and be completely honest, you also must be prepared to receive the same treatment. Remove game-playing from the equation and space opens up for plain honesty. Imagine how powerful a team will be if any of your subordinates can walk up to you and tell you you’re wrong without any fear of repercussions. It takes maturity to open yourself up to constructive criticism on a daily basis, but remembering that you’re serving the company’s success will save your ego from bruising. The truth should be your friend, so demand it.
Get the right focus on the right stuff and you can go as fast as you like. (The reverse is also true.) There’s a land grab element to business growth. If your competitor’s got a great strategy and a great team too, the winner’s going to be the one who gets there first. So, measured speed is important, and if the machine’s beautifully engineered and finely tuned, then when the wheels start spinning, it’ll hum.
On a number of occasions, I said No when it would have been easy to say Yes. For example, lucrative customers in the early days of growth could have seemed like gift horses. But if they didn’t fit the sweet spot of our strategy, we had to say No. These decisions take courage in the moment, but down the line they often reveal themselves to have been the points at which the strategy – and the team – grew a backbone.
Never, ever give up. (Churchill repeated the word ‘never’ four times when he was making this point). The pattern for most CEOs goes; slap in the face, punch in the nose, kick in the ass, tickle. And repeat. The tickles are few and far between so irrational perseverance is the only thing that will get you through from one tickle to the next. Indeed, knowing that the slaps, punches and kicks are part of the ride to success should help add some rationality to the more brutal aspects of your experience.
“No amount of money ever bought a second of time,” (not Churchill this time, but Ironman [Marvel Comics™]). Make sure you keep some balance in your life. Make time for family and something that’s nothing to do with work. Passion needs fuel and if you’re running on empty, it will show.
Relationships matter. One-on-ones with your team should be a chance to talk about anything other than work. Know the person as well as the role and the authenticity will flow. There will be tough times and it’s easy to disengage from the relationships. But the more you know the person, and they know you and trust you, the stronger the team will be through thick and thin.