Like most founder-CEOs, I have done it all at my company. At Farmer’s Fridge, which sells fresh food via our vending machine-style refrigerators, I have also made meals, done deliveries, built and serviced Fridges, done sales and marketing, managed our chart of accounts, and obsessed about our customers. The truth is that I am simultaneously the most qualified person on earth for my role and would probably not get it today if I applied.
And like most startups, Farmer’s Fridge, until just a few years ago, was a place where an employee might be running marketing one minute and chopping lettuce the next. A small group of us in a shared office space with no air-conditioning were trying to prove that we could change the way the world eats.
Cue 2018. We proved we had a model that worked and raised a large venture capital investment. Our team doubled in size, and then doubled again. Our office got a massive facelift. We hired executives. And I noticed a shift in my day-to-day interactions with colleagues. I went from being just another hustler on the team to being the CEO.
As the company continued to grow, I have had to reinvent my leadership style several times, but it never gets easier. I constantly have to let go of things that worked in the past while still trying to figure out what will help me thrive in the future. One tool that I have found especially useful to my personal growth is a 360 review. A 360 review is a performance evaluation tool that asks for feedback from all levels. In my case, I collect insights from board members, my executive team, and my direct reports.
After a very challenging several months launching a new region, restructuring the team, and navigating a pandemic, stress on the team was high. One of my mentors suggested that I consider a 360 review, so that I could better understand the role my leadership was playing—good and bad. I definitely had a few moments where I wondered, “Do I really want to a review during the early stages of a pandemic when it felt like the entire world was fighting for survival?” The reality is that it’s always scary to willingly solicit candid feedback, but what you hear probably won’t change much if you run the process honestly.
In the end, I decided to go for it. I knew this was the right thing for me personally and for the organization I am responsible for leading. During the 360 review, I received positive feedback on my entrepreneurial chops and my ability to envision the future.The interviewees relayed confidence in me as the visionary leader for Farmer’s Fridge. That was reassuring to hear, as well as feedback that I was personable and focused on my team’s well-being.
And then came the development areas. The team felt I needed to graduate from “do it all myself” mode to an executive who could effectively oversee departments. Another main theme was transparency: My colleagues wanted direct feedback and clear goals from me. They felt I had a tendency to be too “in the weeds” on certain projects, and wanted me to either delegate work to them and then get out of their way or explain directly why I wanted to stay involved. Hearing this feedback was refreshing and helpful, and made what I had feared would be a negative experience feel positive.
My role as CEO has changed a lot over the past seven years, and what the company needs from me as a leader now is different than what was needed when we were a small, scrappy group getting our hands dirty and working in a shared office space. It’s uncomfortable to deeply examine the ways that I need to continue to push myself to grow, and to be so forthcoming with my colleagues about my development areas and interpersonal goals. It also ups the ante on my accountability.
I’m committed to empowering my team by clarifying what I will delegate and holding those people accountable, stabilizing the organization by committing to a singular vision and path forward, and building trust through transparency and clear documentation. Writing this article—and sharing those weak spots and subsequent commitments publicly—takes it to a whole new level of accountability.
But I view it as using all the tools at my disposal to help the organization succeed. When it comes to the future of Farmer’s Fridge, there are a lot of things out of my control: I can’t control what happens next with the pandemic, I can’t control disruptions to our supply chain from events like the devastating wildfires on the West Coast, and I can’t foresee how the results of the election will impact our business. But working on myself through a 360 review is something that’s within my control and that will put the business in a stronger position to nimbly weather any unanticipated and uncontrollable changes in the landscape. It’s difficult to be vulnerable in this way but I’m committed to working on what I can to make sure we’re here for the long run.
Luke Saunders is founder and CEO of Farmer’s Fridge, a network of more than 400 smart fridges stocked with fresh meals and snacks