9 Secrets To Becoming An Unsinkable CEO

Failing is par for the course when you're a leader. Your ability to get back up, dust yourself off, and move forward is what will set you apart from the rest.

Are you failing fast enough to succeed?

Don’t worry--it's not a trick question. We’re talking about the idea of learning from your mistakes and being able to turn on a dime.

Naturally, we all fail at some point. What matters is what happens next. For innovators, the ability to quickly recognize a wrong move and immediately reverse course is what counts.

Matthew Roche, who has earned a veritable black belt in leadership thanks to 14 years of successfully serving as CEO of multiple companies, says that pivoting quickly is the signature of an effective leader.

“You can’t be so wedded to an idea that you don’t see that the idea has left you behind,” Roche, CEO of referral marketing company Extole, told me. “Markets change all the time, and if the market now wants something else, it is hubris to tell the market something else.”

As the former CEO of a technology services company, Offermatica, Roche downsized the company from 300 people to eight. As painful as that was, he recognized that the world had changed and that the company’s consulting offer was too costly and inefficient in an environment where people wanted something affordable yesterday. Instead, he transformed the business into one of the first SaaS companies, selling it in 2007 to Omniture, now Adobe. The product today is Adobe Test&Target.

To be a successful leader you must be a bit of an emotional acrobat, able to balance between the extremes of being too pragmatic or too delusional. Focus solely on the day-to-day, says Roche, and you won’t advance. Get stuck in the clouds and your company will self-destruct. “You need to constantly tack between dreamland and the market,” Roche advises.

Forget about being an average Joe if you want to compete in the Olympics of leaders, also known as Silicon Valley. “You can be the smartest kid in high school and on a good day you are mid-level at best in Silicon Valley,” says Roche, who worries about being beaten by someone who “understands what I understand and does it faster.”

So how do you succeed in this world of super beings? Here are nine insights from Roche to help you do just that:

1. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

Get rid of extraneous areas and focus on one idea. At Extole, Roche eliminated 80% of the things the company did to focus exclusively on customer referral.

2. Forget long vision statements

Give people something to rally around. Roche’s software company’s description: easy to use, easy to build, easy to win. Notice that the statement doesn’t describe what the company was building, but how it did it.

3. Manage by step-by-step goals

Don’t worry about taking the country; take the city instead. Be sure that everyone knows your goals and role and how this fits in with a company’s objectives. Make individual and team goals precise. For instance, customer services goal might be to improve response time from 4,000 to 2,000 milliseconds.

4. Develop a learning organization

Just like you develop an individual learning culture, so too an organization. It needs to be always learning something new and discarding important beliefs if the data points elsewhere. And it must implement fast.

5. Articulate core values

Roche says Extole’s company values celebrate the idea of one team. While the company has multiple teams, ultimately they all need to be aligned.

6. Measure and be adaptable

Both are key adjuncts to decision making. “They allow you to eliminate unnecessary ambiguity and reach clarity . . . Finding the right numbers is no different from finding the right syntax or grammar. It’s a search for simplicity and communication, just in the form of digits.

7. Make time to distract yourself

Downtime is essential. “You need to make time to just be distracted, to talk with people and think without thinking.”

8. Surround yourself with people you trust

Build trust with the people you surround yourself with. “Most companies I know break because of personal reasons,” says Roche.

9. Enjoy the journey

The fun part is not selling a company or going public but the day-to-day triumphs of winning over a customer or helping an employee. “Transactions are the least interesting and least resonant,” says Roche.

Successful leaders are, in the end, dancing on a different plane than many of us. Yet, in understanding their guiding principles we can improve our own leadership skills, if not rise to their stellar height. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

I’d love to hear about your leadership ideas. Please share your thoughts in the comments space below.

[Image: Flickr user Joe Mazzola]

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