30 Years as CEO | 7 Lessons

This is an update of two posts I wrote about my time at Altify as CEO and Executive Chairman. It was pointed out to me that the lessons were more broadly applicable, so I’ve updated the post. Altify was not my only start-up. My first company (in Artificial Intelligence software) began in 1986 and I sold it to a US public company in 1997. Then I had the good fortune to build/exit three more companies in the intervening eight years before the Altify adventure began.

While I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way I have noticed that as you get older you tend to become more reflective and receptive to external wisdom. Conflicting opinion is less threatening and contrasting perspectives seem more reasonable. One thing I know for sure is that you can’t buy the experience that lubricates the friction of debate. Experience helps you to assimilate advice. It provides context and a wider aperture than your current lens. The later years were the years in which I was most receptive to learning from others. Perhaps that is why I discovered so much during that time.

[My experience has all been in B2B enterprises – I don’t know anything about consumer businesses.]

Here are seven lessons I’ve learned that I think matter deeply. (The 1min video here is the short version 🙂 and the details follows below the video.)

1. Without a Vision you can’t see where you’re headed 

‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’

Book of Proverbs

It always has to start with the Why. Why does the company exist? Why are you embarking on this project? Why are you going to work today? Why are you building this product?

At Altify, as an example, we had a perspective that enterprise sales was broken (lots of investment / very little return) and if we could fix it – maybe partly automate it – we could improve the lives of the salespeople and their customers. We also knew that software, on its own, unless infused with sales methodology knowledge, would not help. So we decided to be the first company to embed sales methodology in software that sellers wanted to use.  With the right software guidance, the salesperson would select the right customer, understand the customer’s business problem and then sell the right solution.

Lesson #1: It is critical to have a vision that people can understand. At Altify, this was the vision: Improve the lives of sales people and their customers. It reflected the direction of a company and its purpose thereby inspiring people to make it a reality.

2. Commitment Should Not Be An Accident

I’ve often been asked what it takes to build a great business. Let me start by saying this:

Any time an entrepreneur starts a company he or she is embarking on a journey that is often unclear, and the responsibilities that come with it will be borne personally.

If you are starting a business it can be the most exciting and rewarding journey you can possibly take. But it should be an active and informed choice, something you believe in deeply, care about with a passion. You need to be prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to make it succeed.

Once you have hired your first employee, secured your first customer or taken external investment, you have a moral obligation to make every personal sacrifice that is required to do the very best job that you can. You don’t get to walk away when things get tough. You have to take your work home. You’re not the boss; you are working for your employees and your customers. You have responsibilities that transcend your personal interest. You have to follow through.

Think about how this also applies when you are leading a team, starting a project, entering a relationship, selling a product, signing a contract, hiring an employee, or making a promise to a customer.

Lesson #2: Commitment shouldn’t be an accident. Think hard. If you’re not prepared to see it through and sustain your effort through the painful parts that will inevitably come – then don’t start.

3. Customers Don’t Own Innovation (That’s Your Job)

It can be difficult to get the balance right between investing in today’s business and tomorrow’s vision. The customer cares about what you can do for her today. She has enough to worry about and is fully occupied with the problem she has right now. She really doesn’t need to borrow problems from tomorrow. If she is going to complain, she is going to complain about today – not tomorrow.

Customer feedback is a thing to be cherished and complaints should be treasured. If you’re lucky your customers will tell you what’s wrong with your product (today). That input is precious. They are investing their time in helping you make your product/company better. They could have said nothing and called the competitor.

The customer can tell you what they don’t like today, but most customers can’t tell you what they will need tomorrow. They’ve not had the time to think about the problems they will have or the solutions they will need. That’s your job. You own the future vision, not your customer.

Lesson #3: Innovation matters. Company strategy and product design should blend customer feedback, market research, and most importantly, your vision. It’s your responsibility to see the future. If you don’t have the vision you’re average at best, and you can’t have sustained growth with ‘average’.

4. Listen and Leave Space

There are always people in your company or your customers with fabulous ideas. Sometimes these ideas are ignored because they don’t come from the person with the title.  In my experience, the opinions of most senior person in the room are not necessarily the most valuable. I have always felt that we only earn the right to express our own opinions when we listen to and value the opinions of others. I’ve found that when I’ve taken the time to listen, I’ve been better for it, as a CEO and a person.

Listening is not just sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for your turn to speak. If you are one of these early jumpers, it only shows that you are not really interested in what the other person has to say. That is both disrespectful and ineffective. When someone pauses, it does not mean they’ve said all they have to say. Give them time to continue. There might be more you can learn. Leave space.

Lesson #4: Listen and leave space. You will definitely learn more from your employees and customers if you let them know that you really want to listen, pause, consider and respond.

5. Without Perspective It’s Hard to See Straight

None of us is just an employee, a customer or a supplier. We’re also mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, daughters and sons, friends and partners, trying to juggle many balls and balance multiple roles.

  • The accountant who signs your paycheck coaches his son’s soccer team at the weekend and volunteers at the local homeless shelter.
  • The top salesperson from the east region that always goes the extra mile for her customers is also a marathon runner.
  • The support engineer who couldn’t work late to fix that software problem has a husband with cancer.
  • The quiet lady in customer service plays the lead role in West Side Story for her neighborhood drama group.
  • The customer who didn’t turn up for the meeting had to attend to their terminally ill child.
  • The person who cleans your office has a PhD in Physics but can’t get a visa so is working illegally to feed his family.

Everyone has a story. We have no idea that behind what we see as their annoying delay, their selfishness or lack of consideration, or their ‘not-noticing’ our efforts, they may be dealing with some industrial-strength problems. Their lives may be in turmoil. They may be struggling with pressures or personal obstacles that are consuming their attention. It is always good to try to find out first, before lashing out.

Lesson #5: Perspective is a Superpower. Remember the last time you complained … ‘I don’t understand why … [Insert complaint here]’? Stop. Think. Focus on the ‘I don’t understand’ part.  Try to empathize so you have common ground for discussion, debate or even enlightenment. “Aha, I never thought about it that way. I get it now”

6. Employees First, Customers Second

This one is easy and it could have been the first, second and third lessons. As I said at the outset; I feel privileged to have taken this journey enriched by so many talented and generous co-travelers. That’s where I have found joy everyday.  

There are so many clichés about people, and I’m not the first to say this, but the success of any enterprise usually comes down to one thing: the team. We know this. 

When you take care of the people, and share with them a purpose worth pursuing, they take care of the customers, and the customers take care of the business.  It really is that simple.

Lesson #6: People matter. Your employees are investing a large part of their lives with you. Take care of that investment in the best way you know. It’s priceless.

7. Knowledge Matters. Be a student for life

When I started my first company I was a young graduate engineer. I did not know anything about starting a company, building a product or running a business. The one thing I had going for me was that I knew I was clueless. So I read voraciously. I read the seminal texts by Kotler (Principles of Marketing etc.), Porter (Competitive Advantage of Nations, etc), and Ries and Trout(Positioning, Immutable Laws of Marketing, etc). I also read In Search of Excellence by Tom PetersWhat They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School by Mark McCormackUp The Organization by Robert Townsend and other less reverent (and honestly more fun) books about business.  

Since then, I’ve tried to be a lifelong student and become sufficiently expert in my domain to have an informed point of view. How else could I advise my customers or guide the company?

Lesson #7: Be a lifelong learner. That is especially important today where the fusion of technologies is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres and transforming every industry in the world. Knowledge truly is power

I’m learning new lessons every day. But these are the seven things I think about all of the time:

  1. Vision
  2. Commitment
  3. Innovation
  4. Listening
  5. Perspective
  6. People
  7. Knowledge

If you nail all of them all of the time, you will be exceptional. Probably no single person embodies all these virtues. But anyone who can do these seven things, who possesses these seven qualities, will be a formidable leader.

If you want to read more of my blogs please subscribe to Think for a Living blog. Follow me on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. I want you to agree or disagree with me, but most of all: I want you to bring passion to the conversation.

Donal Daly is Chief Rocket Launcher at 6Rockets. 6 Rockets is my new business consulting and software company. With a particular focus on creating and shaping strategies, 6R guides ambitious business leaders to outpace their competition and make a mark in their industries through superior execution in sales, marketing, and product management.

Prior to Altify’s acquisition by Upland Software in October 2019, Donal was Chairman of Altify having founded the company in 2005. He is author of numerous books and ebooks including the latest Amazon #1 Bestseller Digital Sales Transformation in a Customer First World (Nov 3, 2017) and his previous Amazon #1 Best-sellers Account Planning in Salesforce and Tomorrow | Today: How AI Impacts How We Work, Live, and Think. Altify was Donal’s fifth global business enterprise. (Hence the name 6 Rockets)