Crippled CEO Blog #116:
Happy new year, everyone!
This blog post is going to be a bit selfish. I’m going to use it to work through my own thoughts, because I want to start the year answering a very important question:
What is my job? What SHOULD be my job?
Now, ostensibly, that is kind of a silly question. My job is I’m the President (or CEO if you prefer — I’m thinking I’m going to switch to that this year) of Life Saver Pool Fence Systems, Inc., ChildSafetyStore, Inc., and a couple of other things.
But that’s just my title. What’s my actual job?
Because when you are the owner and chief executive of an enterprise, it’s important — for you and the company — that you put yourself in the roles where you can have the biggest impact. In Crippled CEO Blog #030, I talked about Tim Harris, the owner of Tim’s Place, a restaurant in New Mexico. Tim has Down syndrome and he decided, as the owner, that the best job for him to have was hugging each guest that came into the restaurant. I thought then and still think now that this is a brilliant example of self-awareness and custom tailoring your responsibilities to fit your strengths and weaknesses to best support the business.
Now, when you first start, your job is pretty obvious. If you start a business doing carpentry, unless you’re starting out with a lot of funding or a lot of waiting customers, your job is going to be doing carpentry. If you are your company’s only employee, your job is to do the thing your company does for people. There’s really no way around that. When I started a website design company, I designed websites. Same idea.
However, once you have a couple employees, a question starts to emerge about what you should be doing. To use our carpentry company example, maybe the answer is still carpentry. But… maybe it isn’t. Maybe you’ve found people who are just as good or maybe even better than you at the actual woodworking. Maybe there are other things that only you, as the owner, can do. It’s easy to just keep doing carpentry, though, and not realize this. Momentum is powerful, and the story we tell ourselves about who we are is even more powerful.
At the start of this, I said I was going to be selfish and work through my own personal responsibilities, what they are, why I choose them, and what I think I should change. Hopefully, this might be useful for some of you, as well, who might be in the same boat or see yourself possibly coming aboard this boat in the future.
I don’t know how to transition into this. So, in no particular order…
- 1. Culture. I hate using such a ubiquitous example of trendy corporatespeak™️, but there’s really not a better term, so I’m stuck with it. I feel like one of my most important jobs is defending the amazing environment and community (I’m trying so hard not to use the word culture) we have at Life Saver and ChildSafetyStore. It’s a rare and special opportunity to be able to influence a small part of the world to be closer to what I think the ideal might be, not just as a place I am excited to spend 8-10 hours a day, but as a small microcosm for a better society as a whole.
I think this culture is critical not just for the continued growth and success of the business, but also my personal happiness. And while everybody can and does contribute, either consciously or unconsciously, I’m not sure that anybody can have an impact on this as much as I can, so it’s essential that I take this responsibility seriously, given how important it is.
So, it’s important and it’s my job, but in practical terms, what do I do? What does the job entail?
There are a few things. The first is to set an example. I’ve seen firsthand in the last 20 something years of running businesses that my behavior gets echoed, for better or worse, by the people around me. And it makes sense. It’s my company, so they are looking to me to set the standard for what is acceptable. In lots of cases, the actions I take and the choices I make become de facto policies when others find themselves in similar scenarios.
So, when they hear me repeat all the time that doing the right thing is always the right thing, and they see me try to live by that and make decisions based on that as often as possible, that has an impact. When I repeatedly give customers the benefit of the doubt and replace things that probably aren’t really covered by the warranty, or aren’t really missing, and so on, they do the same thing. When they see me give out small replacement parts for free, they do that, too. When they see me joke around and have a sense of humor both with customers and colleagues, when they see me give the benefit of the doubt, be generous, lead with compassion, and so on with employees, when they see me caring about water safety, when they see me be understanding with suppliers, and etc., I see them do those things, too. My example sets the rules and the bar at the same time.
After that, it is prioritizing the right things in other people. I can set all the examples I want, but if I only have jerks working with me, it’s not going to make a difference. While both is preferred, I choose kind and reasonable over productive and competent every time. When I am hiring people directly, I am trying to decide if they will be a good addition to the culture far more than I am deciding if they will do a good job at the work. In most cases, I can teach the work. I can’t make somebody a good person. And because I’ve carefully chosen managers who are really great people, and because they agree with this outlook, they are also hiring with the same criteria in mind. And if we make a mistake, and we do hire a jerk, we let them go fast. We are far more likely to fire somebody for being mean than for making mistakes.
- 2. Creating new jobs and filling them. According to one of my heroes, the incomparable Seth Godin, this is essentially a CEO’s sole responsibility and I’m planning to make it a bigger focus in 2022 as I try to find new ways for us to keep growing. In years past, I’ve done this in two different ways. Sometimes, I identify a specific thing that I want done and hire somebody to do that. I think this is the more conventional train of thought. Other times, though, I have a specific person who I know will be awesome, and I just hired them, and then figured out what they can do. I once heard somebody say that if Jimi Hendrix wants to join your band, it doesn’t matter if you already have a guitar player, you let Jimi Hendrix in your band. I have certainly done this with employees before, as well. Sometimes you know a person will be terrific and you just make it work. In 2022, though, I want to spend more time actively thinking about what roles we need invented and who can fill them.
- 3. I’m the last line of defense for money leaving the business. I sign every check. I create and send out wires myself. Ellen Degeneres said that one of the best pieces of advice she ever received was from Oprah: sign all of your own checks. And I’m definitely very trusting of people, some might say too much, but at the size we are at now, this seems like a reasonable level of oversight.
- 4. I do payroll. I physically run payroll each week, I determine everybody’s pay, and I do the raises. Managers will recommend a raise if they feel it is warranted after a review, but I make the final call and actually enter it into the payroll system. This sort of falls under the same category of being the person who dispenses money, but it feels different enough to warrant its own item on the list.
- 5. I initiate special projects that move the company forward. Technically, anybody can do this, and they often do, but I feel like my higher perspective and permission give me additional ability to see new things we should attempt. I try to just get the project started and let people suited to it actually get it done so I’m not the bottleneck.
- 6. I’m the solver of serious problems. Most problems can be solved (best) by other people, but every now and again there’s either something complex that benefits from my extra experience, or so existential that it requires my input.
- 7. I’m the tie breaking vote. Occasionally, there are multiple seemingly equally good options for something, the path forward isn’t clear, and a decisive choice is required. If it is important enough, or falls into a category where I have a particular expertise, I make the call. One benefit of this is that it shifts the responsibility to me — that way, I’m the only one to blame if the wrong choice was made.
- 8. I manage the relationships with our biggest customers, vendors, and suppliers. I’m trying to do less of this, honestly. More and more, I’m letting other people do a lot of the communication with these key partners. I think this is a good direction, both to remove me as a bottleneck, and so hiccups can be avoided if I’m not around.
- 9. I am the public face of the company and its primary spokesperson for pretty much everything — media, events, interviews, online, etc. I’m not sure I’m the best person for this, but I also don’t know who else could do it. Also, the press typically does like hearing from the CEO directly, but I bet there are ways we could circumvent that.
- 10. Resident pool fence/pool safety expert. I have been in the business the longest and the most deeply, so I know the most about the thing we do. Other people have done a great job on really learning, though, so I’m only necessary in this role for the most esoteric questions and situations. I think I’ll be less necessary for this kind of thing as time goes on.
- 11. Pool fence donation coordinator. Life Saver donates pool fences to any family who has suffered a fatal or non-fatal drowning. Historically, I have tended to be the person who communicates with the family, reaches out to their local Life Saver dealer, and sets it all up. I’m terrible at all of the logistical parts of this, though, so I’ve been working on removing myself. Also, we now have a Chief Giving Officer in Paul DeMello, so I’ve been letting him take the reins on a lot more of this.
- 12. New dealer setup. Michael McGahee has done a terrific job of systematizing the majority of the process of vetting dealer inquiries, walking them through the process, getting them here for training , and then making sure they are squared away when they get back home. I still do the pitch presentation where I let them know about the company, what being a dealer looks like, etc. I probably don’t have to do this, but at the moment, I’m likely the best person available for the job (even though I’m not great at it).
- 13. Marketing. I personally oversee all of the company’s marketing. If I have a background in something besides pool fence, it’s in marketing, specifically advertising online. I have a very particular sense of what our brand looks, sounds, and feels like, and it’s important to me to maintain that. Lots of CEOs should NOT be running their business’s marketing, but this is an area I’m especially strong in and it’s a driving factor for our success over the last ten years. I have outsourced a lot of the hands on management of the specific advertising platforms, but I’m still overseeing all of it and, besides directing the larger strategy, also tweaking and tuning the individual ads and campaigns on a regular basis. Some CEOs are also their company’s chief engineer because that’s their strength and this makes sense. That isn’t me, which is why I have Michael Doscher and Chris Lupton. If I tried to do that job because other CEOs do it, it would be bad. The same goes for the marketing. I do it because it’s my thing. If it’s not your thing, you should definitely let somebody who loves it help you.
- 14. Tracking and projecting revenue, expenses, and profit. I am monitoring our live P&L (profit and loss) statement multiple times per day and the balance sheet once per day. We have a great CFO in Vitaly Neimer, but I still think it’s important that I have a deep understanding of the company’s health, its momentum, its vulnerabilities, and its problems, and a lot of that can be found by watching the financial statements. It’s also the metric I use to keep score to know if we are winning or not. I really love games, and running these businesses is my absolute favorite game, so I can’t get enough of watching the scorecard to know how we are doing. Our CFO is also monitoring all the numbers, but no one is going to obsess about it like I am, so I think it’s an essential job for me to have.
- 15. Pool Fence DIY customer support. I’m one of the three people who answer the 7-days-a-week, 24 hours a day tech support line for Pool Fence DIY. I’m great at answering the calls, but I’m not as good as the people who process the orders and what not as dealing with that kind of customer service, and I’m also not the best person at answering installation questions — I’ve never actually installed a pool fence. I’m really only doing this because no one else can do it. This needs to be rectified.
I think that mostly covers it? There are a few other odds and ends — stuff I have to sign, administrative things that pop up, etc., that can’t be avoided, but I believe that’s the crux of my various jobs.
You know, I’ll be honest — I figured this list would be a few, big, critical things — broad strokes type stuff — and I would use that as an example of focusing on what’s important, of knowing your strengths, avoiding your weaknesses and less important tasks, and so on. However, as I kept thinking, the list kept getting longer. This was supposed to be a selfish exercise, and I did find it to be really helpful. All in all, I’m happy with the bulk of what I do currently. That wasn’t always the case. Over two decades, though, I’ve managed to curate the roles I excel in and weed out most of what I’m bad at (or dislike — they typically go together). Going through this did highlight a couple jobs I should find better people for, and an especially important thing I should be doing more of.
I hope this was useful for you, to see the types of jobs someone who has been at this for a while has chosen to assign himself, and the thought process behind those decisions. This kind of insight from others really helps me, and I also find it really interesting, so hopefully one of you feels the same way. If you have any questions or suggestions, I would love to hear them. If you also own a business that’s allowed you to determine your own roles, I’d be interested in hearing your choices, as well.
I would like to dedicate this post to Barb Goss. I met Barb 25 years ago through her son, who eventually became my first roommate. Barb became a quadriplegic ten or so years ago, and was easily this blog’s biggest fan. She passed away two weeks ago. She was fiery, funny, fiercely independent, and I’ll miss seeing her kind comments below this space each week. Thank you, Barb, for being kind and meaning it.
(You know what job I never turn down? Your mom. She also gets a text from me every Sunday with a link to the latest blog post. Send a text to 561-726-1567 with the word CRIP as the message to get a link to the blog as soon as it’s up.)