How to Make Being CEO a Little Less Lonely
There’s no complaining to your peers about the boss over lunch when you are the boss.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
- Josh Leslie has been the CEO of Cumulus Networks for two-and-a-half years.
- He says that it's a lonely job -- and that when you're CEO, anything that happens in the company could be attributed to you, whether you like or not.
- His best advice? Listen to your gut -- always.
I wanted a dog for a long time, but my wife, Sara, was a bit resistant. I don't blame her. We had three children in a period of 45 months, we both worked in demanding jobs, and we had just started to adjust to a new phase of life: parents of adolescents.
Ultimately, I did the only sensible thing I could do in the situation: I enlisted our children in a lengthy and persistent campaign. We begged, we cajoled, we promised to clean up the poop and walk the dog. When we found that tiny puppy, Sara picked her up and they both squealed with joy. I knew we would achieve our objective of dog ownership! I suggested to the kids that we let Mom name the dog. Long before I became CEO, I learned that people support what they own. My wife, Sara, and our dog, Peggy, have been nearly inseparable ever since.
This leads me to my first lesson as CEO.
1. If you're looking for friends, get a dog
They say CEO is a lonely job -- and two-and-a-half years later, I know it's true. I have no peers for the first time in my career, and I feel their absence. I don't get to go to lunch and complain about the boss with my coworkers. My role in the company is unique and uniquely isolating. If I don't like how things are going, I can't leave -- certainly not with my career and reputation intact. I regularly possess information about our financial position, a key partnership, or a former employee, and I can't share it with anyone. My investors are supportive and kind, but I'm one of many companies in their portfolio. I work alone.
So yes, CEO is a lonely job. And my kids are growing up so they don't run to the door to great me anymore. But when I get home from work, no matter what, Peggy is overjoyed to see me.
2. Anything that happens in the company could be attributed to you, whether you like or not
Our VP of HR announced in an email that we were considering a policy to allow dogs in the office. I was very enthusiastic and hopeful that our employees would be supportive. Fortunately, they were. One week later, I brought Peggy into work.
The first employee I ran into looked the two of us over, and quickly concluded: "Oh! It was you who wanted dogs in the office."
Your employees will take everything you say and do seriously. Casual comments can become policy in the blink of an eye. The CEO is the cultural heartbeat of the company, whether you want it that way or not. Leaving the office early gives people permission to do the same. Staying late makes people feel pressure to stay at work longer. My words and actions are an ongoing signal of what I value and what I believe is important. Our employees look to leadership to set priorities, and I'm in a constant state of communicating those priorities. I look at everything I do -- or try to -- with intention.
This leads me to my third and final lesson learned, and it has nothing to do with my dog.
3. Listen to your gut -- always
As a first time CEO, I've gotten a lot of advice. Some of it was solicited, and some wasn't. For the first time in many years, most of the people who work for me know a lot more about how to do their jobs than I do. Many have been at the company longer than I have, and virtually all of the technical people in the company are simply much deeper in our domain than I am.
This is all in sharp contrast to the last seven years I spent working as a VP of sales, which came on the heels of a successful career selling technology and managing salespeople. By my third VP of sales job, I was confident about selling enterprise products. I was certain I knew more about selling and go-to-market than every employee -- including the CEO -- and just about all of the investors. My confidence and my experience combined to create a level of credibility that allowed me to make organizational and operational decisions with speed and clarity.
But back to my current gig. When I started, it was pretty clear to everyone, including me, that I a) had no experience as a CEO, b) had no experience running engineering or building products, and c) had never run a board meeting or raised money. You get the idea. I heard a lot of suggestions from the team: We should implement more rigorous reporting. We need to define our target accounts. We should write down our values. Let's stop spending money on free food. Let's open source the product!
My advisers and investors also had lots of advice as well. They told me about executives I should or shouldn't hire (or fire). And they shared their suggestions: Invest in sales! Invest in engineering! Change your positioning!
Decisions we make at the company level always have consequences -- for our employees, for our customers and for our investors. However, unlike when I ran sales, the answer is never clear. And when it comes to long-term strategy, we're almost always forced to make decisions using incomplete information.
Regardless of how smart our team and our advisors are, in the end, I will live with the consequences of that decision. I will defend it, I will explain it. I must own it every day.
So when I have to make a hard decision, what do I do? I listen carefully to all of those smart people, I sleep on it, and then I go with my gut.
And then I go home and see my dog.
Josh Leslie is a seasoned technology executive and currently serves as CEO of Cumulus Networks. Prior to Cumulus, Josh spent time at Instart Logic, VMware, and CommValut Systems, holding various leadership roles in both sales and business development.A Bay Area native, Josh received a BA from the University of California, Berkeley and an MBA from Columbia Business School. When he's not in the office, Josh enjoys spending time with his wife, three kids, and his poodle, Peggy.