Ever since launching Cyan Forensics, people asked me “so how is it being a CEO?” or “is it very different from what you expected?”, and I’ve found it a very difficult question to answer.
I have spent much of my career in and around start-ups, and the last 8 years as a consultant working closely with CEOs. I have pitched, strategised, planned, sold, hired, fired, set up processes and seen many successes, and failures. I’m still doing all those things – so how is it different?
Now I’ve been running Cyan Forensics for just over two years, I found myself reflecting on this on a long flight, and I started writing down my thoughts more to order them than anything else. I thought they might be of interest as a blog post, so here goes…
The criticism of consultants is often that we’re only involved, not committed, to the projects we work with – and I vividly remember one of the team at Babson (during the Saltire Fellowship) illustrating this idea with the analogy “when it comes to breakfast, the chicken was involved but the pig was committed”.
I feel the truth is a little more complex than that for me, for two reasons. Firstly an internal one. All the people I worked with were passionate and hugely committed to their businesses. I felt a huge responsibility to do good work to help them on their journey, and very conscious of the consequences of letting them down. Secondly, the work I did depended hugely on my reputation and track record. I had a powerful professional incentive to deliver. Was I as committed as the founders and CEOs I worked with? Of course not, but I think I felt more commitment than when, for example, I worked for corporate clients from a large consulting company.
I’ve made a huge commitment to Cyan Forensics, but it’s not come as a surprise to me, and I think it was less of a “step up” than some people looking at my career from the outside might imagine.
I feel a great sense of responsibility to both my team and my investors, but as with commitment, this isn’t perhaps such a huge step as some might imagine compared with the long term relationships I had with client companies in the past.
I have come into this determined to succeed, but knowing that failure in start-ups is common, so I have some coping strategies to help me with that truth. These are about making sure I keep the sense of responsibility I accept in proportion, recognising what is and is not within my power, and making sure I play my part to the best of my ability.
With investors (I include those who invest time as well as grants and equity investment) it is in my power to give them my absolute best efforts in building the business, and to be transparent in my communications with them so that they can take responsibility for their own investment decisions.
With my team, it is in my power to make sure I treat them with respect, decency, and fairness, help them to develop, and keep them informed about what is happening. If I take responsibility for those things, then I am playing my part.
As CEO, I have more freedom to do my best and be true to my values than I ever had as a consultant or part of someone else’s team. I still find it surprising some days that having researched the options and taken the best advice I can, I am very often free to decide what path we follow. Far more so than ever before. In this respect becoming a CEO has been very liberating.
The reverse side of the freedom is minutia. Cyan Forensics’ currently has a team of 8 (and a bit) people, so there are lots of things like accounting, payroll, buying stationary, approving travel, dealing with holidays and general admin and paperwork that I have to deal with. Putting in place processes for these things helps, and I’m always trying to find scope to delegate, but there’s still a lot that comes to me. We’ve just taken on a CFO who I hope will help to change that.
Just now though, I’m constantly battling the difference between the important and the urgent – do I make sure the accounts are up to date or work on the marketing strategy? Do I call a customer for an update on how they are getting on evaluating our tech, or put some much-needed effort into the board pack?
I think we’re doing OK for the size we’re operating at, but it’s very clear to me that my scalability as a CEO is dependent on my ability to delegate creatively and ramp up the amount of time that I spend on the important things while delegating the urgent.
I think I always understood that intellectually, but it’s one of my key personal challenges in this role!
A lot has been written lately about the isolation that founders and CEOs can feel, and rightly so. Mental health is an issue that needs to be discussed more, and these are clearly high risk roles, as high profile cases (including too many suicides) have demonstrated.
My wife has her own business, and experience working with start-ups, so she understands exactly what I’m doing, and is incredibly supportive. That helps a lot.
I’m also fortunate, to have a great team and network, and thanks in particular to the Saltire Foundation my network includes plenty of people completely understand the situation I am in. This is hugely valuable as a source of support, as I always know I have people to turn to both for inspiration, advice or sympathy.
So far, I’m doing OK.
Think, Plan, Act.
Working in other people’s companies it has been my job to follow their tone. Now I’m running my own, it’s interesting trying to set the tone. Often it forces me to learn to express how I like to approach things in a way I haven’t needed to before.
“Think, Plan, Act” is a simple mantra, and perhaps a very obvious sequence to adopt when looking at almost any issue in business (or life!).
Now I have a team that I work with every day, I have realised that it isn’t the sequence that’s really important – it’s timing and concurrency.
For me, timing means we need to be starting to brainstorm or have whiteboard sessions about an issue (the start of “Think”) well in advance of when we need a “Plan”, let alone “Act”. Often when we have such a session, we discover that part of our premise is wrong – for example that the task is much bigger or smaller than we had assumed. We then need to evolve that into a “Plan” well in advance of “Action”, because often when the “Act” happens be dependent on the cost, which can’t be fully understood until there is a “Plan”… Often we find that we come back the day after a “Think” stage or “Plan” session having slept on the issues, and have a quite different perspective. I believe that allowing time for this sort of reflection is important.
Extending this across all the different things we are working on in product development, marketing and sales, it means that at any given time we have activities at all the different stages. It can feel really counter intuitive to take time away from vital “Action” to do some “Thinking” or “Planning”, but if we don’t then then we’re “borrowing” reduced future performance to “lend” to the short term. It’s a bit like the idea of “Technical Debt” which is gaining increasing recognition in the software arena!
So we must be concurrently doing the “Think”, “Plan” and “Act” stages on different tasks, and our plans have to reflect this. I’ve never thought about it explicitly in this way before, but explaining it to other people has forced me to!
Keeping Sight of Why
At Cyan Forensics we are all busy – which is a good thing.
Naturally this means we all have a list of tasks that need our attention, and often the outputs of those tasks feed into other people’s tasks. Planning and scheduling is much easier when we think in terms of tasks, but a task based approach does risk losing the “why?” behind each one.
I have long been aware of this in engineering terms – and the challenge has never really been solved. Systems that truly link code or design back to requirements tend to be cumbersome. The agile development approach that the technical team has adopted has “User Stories” (the evolution of the “Use Cases” I used to work with when I was writing code) as a means of tracking the “why”, and that works well for at least some of the work.
We don’t have a formal process for managing the “why” when it comes to marketing, sales and operational tasks but one of the things I have found really helpful is to simply attach “why” whenever possible.
For internal documents or presentations this means the introduction states what the document is for – why was it prepared? What will it cover, and what is out of scope? This has helped a lot in making sure that documents evolve to fulfil their purpose, and are reviewed against their purpose, rather than going off at a tangent. For marketing materials, we don’t necessarily state the purpose as part of the document, but when circulating it for review or contributions we try to put the “why” into the covering message.
Experiencing the Company
As the team at Cyan Forensics has grown we have had to think about what values are important to us. Recently we had a full day working on this with external facilitators which was really helpful – we have good alignment and having talked it through thoroughly we’re capturing that so we can use it to guide the business and bring new people on board.
There is one that in some ways seems too obvious to even consider articulating – so we struggled for a long time to figure out what it was. I’m not completely sure we’re there to this day. The essence of it is that we want everyone we deal with to have a positive experience from that interaction.
We really do try to build this into everything we do, from the obvious areas like interaction with potential customers, through to the less obvious, like paying our bills on time, and getting receipts to the accountants promptly, and trying to make sure we treat each other well.
I’m working with great people on exciting projects and having a lot of fun, and that hasn’t changed from anything else I did in the last decade. What has changed is not so much about commitment or responsibility, which is often how the questions are to be framed, but about leadership. It’s about setting the tone, setting the agenda, and setting approaches to working across everything we do. I have no idea how I’d get through this without the experiences I’ve accumulated and especially the Saltire Fellowship. It’s a new challenge, and one I relish.
Ask me in 5 years how it’s gone…