By Nate AuneI’m a solo founder, so naturally I like to have my hand in everything that happens at my company. We’re Appsembler, and we offer an experiential learning platform for B2B software companies who need to deliver scalable, online training programs for their users and employees.Since creating this company in 2011, I’ve done HR, I’ve done development, I’ve done sales. I’ve done it all.But, as we’ve grown in recent years, more and more of my employees have been telling me to get out of the weeds and just focus on “CEO stuff.” The big picture, company-wide growth initiatives that only I can do. Let them handle all the rest of it.When I first heard that, I didn’t exactly take it well. I had to look myself in the mirror and unpack it a little bit. It wasn’t easy – self-reflection never is – but eventually I realized that they were right. I had been procrastinating in doing the really hard work that I needed to do as CEO, the strategic work and planning that’s longer-term and more about charting a course for the company.For too long, my days had been like whack-a-mole, just knocking things out and reacting. I needed to focus more on the things that only I can do as a CEO.So, I gave my team the opportunity to give me some honest, candid feedback. What was working, what wasn’t working, what they liked and didn’t like about my leadership style, where they saw opportunity for improvement, etc. To do it, I reached out to a company here in Boston called Eager Labs, which does business culture improvement. They put together a CEO 360 review survey that went out to about 10 people at the company, asking about my communications style, my leadership, my personality and more. There were more than 50 different questions and the results were all eventually pulled together into a final report that outlined how my employees rated me on different things along with some actual written feedback that was all anonymized.It was eye-opening.It was also incredibly powerful, and I felt really blessed to have the opportunity to get that kind of feedback from my team. Here’s what I learned. Appsembler: 3 Lessons from My CEO 360 Experience.
I was trying to do too much.
In the final report I think I counted 13 instances of the word “weeds,” which had become sort of like a meme in the company – “Oh, Nate’s in the weeds again.” So, one of the results that came out of that was I left 25 to 30 Slack channels that I had been sort of monitoring for no good reason. The only reason I was in that many channels was that I probably created half of them.In just a few weeks, I went from being the #2 two most active person on our Slack to #6. And it’s working. I’m actually finding that I’m not getting so caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of what the team is doing anymore. I’m trusting that they’ve got everything covered because I know that they’ll escalate it to me if they have a problem.
I was too “on.”
I also put myself on a Slack and email diet. I set aside certain times of the day when I can go in and I check my email, I check my Slack, and then the rest of the day I put my inbox on pause. I’m not constantly checking it throughout the day. That’s helped me to be more disciplined and more focused on spending time on the important stuff and not just being in reaction mode all the time.
I needed to temper my communications.
One thing I didn’t realize was how much weight the voice of the CEO carries; how if I go into Slack and I say something, all of a sudden the rest of the team is going to pay attention and hold that as more important than maybe what they were already working on.It’s like, “oh, the CEO is talking. I better go look and see what he’s saying.”I had never thought about it that way. So, one of the feedback items was just providing more context and setting a level of urgency or importance when I make a statement. Now I always try to set priorities – “hey, this is important to look at right now,” or “put this on your backlog as something to look at next quarter” – it’s about being more clear and concise with my staff.At the end of the day, a large part of the process was about just being OK with not being on top of everything all the time. And that was hard for me as a solo founder who used to wear all the hats.But when I hired a team to help me scale, what I didn’t think about was that they needed to feel ownership of this product just like I do, and trust that I’m not like second-guessing them all the time. Part of the job of the CEO is to ask questions – “why are we doing things this way?” or “what are the results?” – but I’ve learned that stepping back and letting the team own their own processes has been a welcome change for all of us.
Nate Aune is Founder and CEO of Appsembler in Boston, Mass.