How do you CEO? / Didier Elzinga @ Culture Amp
A learning journey of how startup CEOs work.
Over the past 6 six months, I've interviewed 10+ CEOs to learn how to do my job better.
It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my own professional development and I hated the idea of keeping all the insights to myself. They all kindly agreed to share our candid conversations so that we can all learn from each other.
I’ll be posting the conversations every Monday and a summary of my own insights at the end of the series.
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#10 Dider Elzinga / CEO @ Culture Amp
How do you CEO?
I’ll answer with a reflection on my time as a CEO.
As the company gets bigger, there’s less and less that you have to do.
Early on it is easy to determine what has to be done like customer calls, writing code, etc.
As the company scales, there are things I have to do like board meetings, but I have the ability to decide what I should and want to work on.
It is very hard to know whether I have spent my time well.
Did I put my time where it needed to be?
“You are what you pay attention to.”
Where should I put my attention?
It varies over time and depends on the exec roles you have at your company.
I am interested in and engaged in all aspects of the business. I am largely across product and sales and happily spend time with the other departments. There are not that many parts that I don’t enjoy. I like doing sales and marketing, thinking about product and love HR. I am pretty even in all areas.
If I had to boil it down, here are the three things care most about:
That being said I spend less than ⅓ of my time on these.
Most CEOs spend 20% time travelling and 60% in meetings.
I try to keep meeting time under half of my week, as an example at a 50h week, you’re trying to get below 25h in meetings.
I recognise that I don’t do enough preparation before meetings which isn’t great as it doesn’t allow time and space to think through the topics.
What’s important as well is to take time to do things that you enjoy, simply because you like doing them.
I am constantly auditing my time and figuring out where I can be most effective as CEO. It was my coach that helped me realise that some of the things I choose to do need to be because they give me energy and make me smile (for me that is brand & product).
How do you set strategy?
The best resource here is the book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy.
The important thing here is that it should not just be aspirational goal setting.
Strategy should be a path.
What is your core challenge?
What is your path to get around it?
There are two parts in the book that I keep going back to::
Coherent action - This is not about labels for all the things you have to do but a set of coordinated actions that support each other.
Proximate goals - people can spend way too much time to come with measurements. It is true that they are helpful, but you often get stuck with statements like “we need more data (!)” which is a waste of time. The beauty of proximate goals is to go in the right direction and get on with them. My bugbear is too much time spent obsessing about defining the right goal metric.
“Strategy is a pattern of allocating resources.”
A strategy misconception is that we’re narrowing everything down to only one segment and nothing else. Strategy is not about saying Yes to one thing to the exclusion of all others.
It is about setting priorities.
What are we focussing on over all else?
We are still going to have to support/focus/help other areas but this is where we need to put the most time and attention.
How do you communicate the strategy?
I’m a heretic.
I don't believe in cascading OKRs.
The choice is that you have:
Either a nice set of goals at the top and they don’t make sense at the bottom.
Or you have bottom-up goals, that ladder up which gets a bit messy.
The most important thing is that you have a powerful narrative.
So everyone understands how to make decisions.
One way I do that is to paint a future picture all the way to 2025.
What does it feel like?
What does the destination look like?
You want to share that to communicate what matters.
We have 8 company-level objectives.
They are 8 intentions that we’re manifesting over the next 3 years.
4 on culture.
4 on how we win.
The team objectives ladder back up to that.
Each department can have its own strategy.
These fit together and support each other.
The company strategy helps you decide what is important and if each team can help.
How do you set goals?
I find OKRs frustrating.
Especially conversations about whether OKRs should work that way or not.
That OKR “purism” that everything should be an outcome only is a waste of time.
The core idea of goals is that they directionally lead us in the right direction with success criteria.
Lots of goals are not that helpful.
We had to develop our own norms.
Good Key Results for us are either doing something by a certain date or shifting some outcome.
Good goals are specific directionally like launching a new feature or have something in the market by X date.
We set success criteria. We don’t tell you HOW, the important thing is that you launch.
Our goals live in spreadsheets and slide decks and in our own platform.
We have two sets of goal-setting tools - the business and team goals and then individual development goals.
How do you communicate sensitive information?
We’re very transparent.
You always let people leave with dignity.
Treat people with respect.
If it is bad news, ask yourself if it is my news to share.
You want psychological safety.
What tips would you have for me?
I think one of the lessons I learned in COVID - as a leader a lot of your job is to absorb fear.
Fear is natural, you don’t ignore it.
Sometimes you just nod and acknowledge it.
What can we actually focus on? What can we control?