Falling Out Of Love With Being CEO

I was a CEO once. In my first real company, Feld Technologies, there were two founders – me and Dave Jilk. I was President (we didn’t use the CEO title then, but as the President, I was the “chief executive officer”) and Dave was Vice President. As we grew, other people had different titles, but the two of us ran the business.

I’ve been told that I was a good CEO, but after about ten people I didn’t like the role of CEO. But we stayed after it and built a successful company that was consistently profitable and acquired by a public company in 1993 for a few million dollars.

At the time it was acquired, we had 20 people. For the next nine months, I ran the consulting group of this public company. I reported to the two co-chairman and we quickly scaled up to 50 people in two offices. By the time we got to 50 people, I hated being the CEO of consulting group (I have no recollection what my title was, but again my role was the CEO role of this group.)

The parent company acquired a much larger consulting company – about 200 people – and I quickly handed the keys over to the new CEO (well, President) allowing Feld Technologies to become two of the branch offices of what ended up being AmeriData Consulting.

I have never wanted to be a CEO since. It’s a really hard job. Some people love it. Some people are outstanding at it. Everyone I’ve ever worked with in the role has struggled immensely at different points in time.

And some people grow to hate the role.

Recently, Rand Fishkin, the CEO of Moz, took an incredibly brave step. In his post Swapping Drivers on this Long Road Trip Together, he handed the CEO role over to his long time business partner Sarah Bird. As of January 15th, Sarah will formally become CEO and Rand will become an individual contributor on the executive team, reporting to Sarah.

We invested in Moz in April 2012. Rand wrote an epic blog on the financing titled Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future. It was so epic that the mainstream tech press didn’t really want to report on the financing since there was no new information they could discover, since Rand blogged every last detail.

Since that date, I’ve developed a professional love affair with Rand and Sarah. As an investor, I have no hesitancy to become close friends with the entrepreneurs we invest in. Rand and his wife Geraldine have become extremely good friends, and I have deep respect and affection for Sarah.

In the middle of 2013, Rand called me up and said “What do you think of the idea of me handing over the CEO reins to Sarah?” I reacted immediately with “That would be awesome.” There was silence – I don’t think Rand expected that reaction.

I knew Rand was unhappy as CEO. He was exhausted in his role. He had a strong senior team but carried around every ounce of stress and responsibility for all aspects of the business. He traveled constantly evangelizing Moz, SEO, and marketing. He loved certain aspects of what he was doing, but hated others. And many of the ones he hated were the ones that a CEO of a scaling business is responsible for.

I recognized this. It’s the same stuff I would hate if I ran a company the size and stage of Moz. It’s the stuff I hated when I was co-chairman of a 1,000 person public company and effectively acting CEO since the CEO we had recruited bailed after accepting the job, leaving us with a four month scramble to find a new CEO. It’s the stuff I remember hating leading a company of 50 people.

Now, Rand and I are different people. But he’s special. And magical. And amazing. And his special, magic, amazingness was being squandered as CEO, especially when he sat next to Sarah, who will be an awesome CEO while allowing Rand to be special, magical, and amazing in the next chapter of Moz.

I’m so incredibly proud of Rand for how he’s approached this, talked openly about it, and dealt with his own emotions, insecurities, and fears around this decision. And I’m extremely excited about Sarah become CEO and unleashing her talents on the new wave of growth at Moz, while Rand spends his time being true to what he loves in the context of Moz.

Building a company is hard. Being a CEO is hard. Working with people you trust, admire, and adore is a delight.

  • Chris Mack

    Love this post. In fact, love just about everything you and Rand put out because unlike a lot of tech writing, it’s vulnerable, emotional, authentic and real. All qualities that the tech world could use more of.

  • Rohan Ayyar

    Goes to show that you’ve got to be a good CEO first before you’re allowed get away with hating the role. Rand’s very act of passing the baton shows how astute he is.

    Thanks for this, Brad.

  • Thank you for sharing!…I love your last statement “Building a company is hard. Being a CEO is hard. Working with people you trust, admire, and adore is a delight.”

    • And living a “great life” – at least in my book – is spending as much time as possible on the “delight” side of the equation.

  • Alec Matias

    Can you elaborate more specifically on the aspects you didn’t like? Was it traveling, amount of meetings, giving feedback, etc.?

    • Definitely not those things since I’ve been doing them continuously in my role as a VC. Per a few other comments, I’ll write a longer post on this at some point.

  • Sudhir Manderwad

    Loved the post. It sounds so surreal in corporate world but the silver lining is that there are companies and people who make the right decisions that are good for them and the company. Bravo !

  • Erin Keefer

    This was great. I see this struggle daily, and wonder if the challenge has to do with getting fed up with the details and the smaller pieces that hold you back. Was that your challenge here, Brad?

    • It wasn’t one specific thing for me. It’s now been a long time since I was a CEO (20 years). I do remember struggling a lot with the dynamics around a hierarchy (vs. the network that I am now completely enmeshed in.) I’ve got a longer post coming at some point specifically about this.

      • Erin Keefer

        I see, and agree. Looking forward to hearing more from you, Brad!

      • It is interesting that you identified issues relating to the dominance hierarchy(see image below 🙂 ) present in most social situations and business organizations. Formalized business structures are slow to adapt, don’t scale well (productivity decreases as new people are added), and have trouble managing complexity. I think that will be the biggest challenge in the next 20 years is to develop systems to replace it.

  • Steven

    Great post. I enjoyed reading it and have been struggling with this myself. The CEO role is incredibly difficult and takes a very specific type of person to do that job well. When you find one (as Rand did in Sarah), that is a discovery that can be an incredible game changer. What I got from this post was what type of leaders you and Rand really are. Being a great leader is not a title, its your actions and your ability to be vulnerable, inspire others and recognize where others will succeed and help them get there. Obviously Rand is a special type of leader that has that insight and Sarah sounds like an ideal CEO. Thank you for sharing.

  • It sounds like a classical founder transition, and there’s nothing wrong that sort of evolution. It would be great if Rand later writes about exactly what he didn’t like about being CEO, unless he has already done that, like “Signs that you should transition out of the CEO role.” I’m thinking that it could be helpful to others.

    Judging by your response, it seemed you were not surprised, and you were probably waiting for Rand to come full circle on it himself.

    I might be wrong, but it strikes me that Rand had the skills of a great CEO. I’m curious to figure out if CEO management training/education would have helped a young CEO like Rand, or whether if it was something he felt he will never want to do.

    • Sarah actually is as close to a co-founder as you get – she’s been Rand’s business partner since Moz was about 15 people. Today it’s over 150 people. Rand loved being CEO up until about 50 people, but at some point found that he was spending time on things he wasn’t enjoying, struggling to get to the stuff he wanted to, and feeling a huge amount of pressure for things he had no ability to directly impact.

      I think Rand was an excellent CEO. I also don’t think he’s necessarily a “young CEO” – he ran Moz for seven years through a huge amount of growth. He also had some real coaching from one of the best in the world, which I think helped move him down the path he took.

      I wasn’t surprised by this. When I invested in Moz, I viewed Rand and Sarah as complimentary leaders of the company. My early relationship was with both of them. And I was extremely comfortable with the idea of Sarah assuming the CEO role and Rand moving into an individual contributor role.

      • Thanks for the insight.
        My bad that I wasn’t aware of Sarah. It sounds like it’s all going to work out fine.

      • dansm15

        Thanks for sharing … It would be interesting to hear more about Sarah, her take on transitioning into the CEO role, what concerns she may have, how her role will change now and in a few months, whether her relationship and/or interactions with staff – including Rand – may be affected. Does she have a support group of other women CEOs, etc?

        • Given how open (TAGFEE) Moz is, I expect Sarah will blog about it. And she has lots of support – both within, around, and outside the company. For example, she went to Jerry Colonna’s 2013 CEO bootcamp – http://www.leadershipreboot.com/.

  • Interesting…I’ve mostly stuck to CTO, founder, or super early employee throughout my career…and it’s only just recently (mostly because of the project and my passion for it) that I’ve have the real fire/desire to become an actual CEO ( http://falicon.com/post/72559608614/are-you-ready-to-bet-on-me ).

    I can def. envision hitting a ceiling or personal limitations down the road…but at the moment they feel light years out…and there’s nothing but excitement and interest for the challenge (and personal growth).

    • Awesome! It can be great for many all along the way, or for some of the stages. For example, someone like Dick Costolo (Twitter CEO) is purpose built to be an awesome CEO. But many others, like me, find it soul crushing. Enjoy the ride and the experience!

  • Great post. Much more generally it’s unbelievable to me that it’s been the accepted norm, almost since civilized societies began, to regard large-scale organizations guided by one or a few people as optimal. The acceptance of obtuse-angle hierarchies in human organizations frequently astonishes me.

    • Hierarchies are dominant for the wrong reason today. They were created in a business context to “get leverage from labor.” That made sense in many situations during the industrial revolution, and even made some sense during the information revolution, but doesn’t make sense today in many cases in the post-Internet era. We are slowly seeing a shift away from it in certain places, and rapidly seeing a shift away in others, such as the startup world.

  • Fantastic post. It’s refreshing to hear people talking about how CEO isn’t the right role for everyone. It’s all about finding the right personality fit for the team and scale of the company. I’ve seen far too many friends suffer through their responsibilities as CEO when they would be far more effective leaders (and much happier) in a different position. The tech press sets up CEOs as the ultimate role model. But it’s only one of many awesome roles to play.

    Props to Rand and Sarah and props to you for being so supportive of the transition as a board member. Not all investors deal with situations like that with grace…

  • RBC

    The job of the leader is to inspire others … but sometimes the leader needs to be inspired too. A video for those seeking some jaw dropping awesomeness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShbC5yVqOdI

  • marlinpage

    I absolutely appreciate this article. A few years ago I was CEO of a technology recruiting company, until I decided to take a life sabbatical. I quickly found out that I loved my employees, I enjoyed motivating them to try new things, but the role of CEO was not appealing anymore. I found myself dreading the day to day, until I decided to do everyone a favor and step aside. I made sure all of my employees remained employed and walked away! I took a year to re-connect and now I have founded Sisters Code. Sisters Code empowers women ages 25 – 85 to explore the world of coding and technology…I now have that pep back in my step! My walking away, taking a breath, essentially helped me to find my true passion of “service.”

  • umbe

    “There was silence – I don’t think Rand expected that reaction.” No doubt there was a combination of mixed emotions here and I’m sorry Brad but your answer of “I think that’s awesome.”, (although no doubt you were trying to be supportive) could have been better. Better to say something like “I’m open to it, Sarah could be a very good CEO, tell me more.”. From what I gather Rand saw a way that he could have a bigger impact on the business in a different role by passing the management of the high-level to Sarah. In my view there’s too much importance placed on titles in general, execution is everything, and great people will recognize how they can make a bigger impact to the vision and the bottom line and will gravitate naturally to that role. Rand was lucky to have Sarah to pass the baton too, and very wise of him to have developed a strong team like that from the get-go (and you as an investor to recognize the inherit stability of the two as a team). As a CEO you should ask yourself “what if I get hit by a bus tomorrow” and you should be able to envision the success of the business without yourself in the equation. If you can’t you’re sitting on a two legged stool and you need to bring in that talent.

    • Your broad comment is right on, but I’m not sure I agree with you that my response could have been better. I think Rand thought it would be a surprise to me and would be viewed by me as a negative. He was carrying around this idea that I had invested in Moz partly because he was CEO. I knew that, and rather than cause more stress around it, I thought I’d immediately cut to the chase that I supported either him or Sarah as CEO. Also, I never once questions whether Sarah could be CEO – I thought from day one that she could be a fantastic CEO and viewed Rand and Sarah as two parts of a strong leader at the top of the company. To Rand’s deep credit, he built a situation out of the gate where he could step out of the CEO role and have a strong partner immediately step in. This is rare in fast growing companies – at least in my experience.

  • wow… awesome stuff

    i totally look up to Rand and am psyched to see the transition for him

    very cool

  • ObjectMethodology.com

    I had to think on this one a bit before asking… Aren’t the internal problem’s the CEO faces mostly the fault of the CEO? Isn’t it the CEO’s job to ensure the company is running smoothly and not facing many of the various foreseeable internal problems?
    That being said, of course, one can’t eliminate all problems. But aren’t the problems faced by the CEO feedback on how good of a job he/she is doing internally?

    • I don’t view any of it as “absolute” – there are many components to “problems” and the CEO has a particular role in leading the team to solve them. But new problems come up continuously in the context of a business.

  • I’ve begun to think about CEOs more and more in terms of their specific toolset that they employ. While almost all CEOs are involved in fundraising, management, company vision, and board / investor communications, I believe there is a a lot of variance in the degree to which they are involved in finance, operations, product management, hiring, marketing, and business development – especially based on the size of the company (there are probably great early-company CEOs that would not enjoy late-stage CEO work, and vice versa). I suspect the applicable skillset also changes quite a bit as a company gets into series B territory (in the case of Moz). My guess is that their challenge is more operational / sales, than product at that point.

    I’m curious what others think, but I’ve started to think of certain CEOs as prototypes for a CEO skillset and their twist on how to run a company. For example, I now think of Jim Franklin as the prototype for an ‘HR’ CEO – running his company through great hiring practices, employee motivation, and general culture.

  • A lot of founders stay in a job they hate because it allows them to stay in control. As an observer, I think you can separate strategic control from operating control but its hard to explain that to someone who has both and is afraid of losing them

    • Yup. In my experience, that is one of the biggest barriers to a founder/CEO even being willing to start having the discussion.

      • John Lusk

        Love this post. I think the true testament of a Founder/Leader is recognizing when to have the discussion and/or having the realization that the discussion will need to occur. When I founded Rivet & Sway, I knew that at some point, I’d need to hand the reigns over to a women. Once we started gaining momentum (2 years after the company was founded), I realized having a women leading a company that sells eyewear exclusively to women was the best strategic call. Was the transition difficult? Yes. Was it the right call? Absolutely. But I feel like it took tremendous leadership to make it happen.

  • Sean

    What Rand has embraced, that very few people in the role of CEO have the ability to, is the reality that he can deliver much greater results and enjoy himself in the process, by following and doing the things which he is most passionate about. For most, ego and pride generally get in the way of this. Generally speaking, evangelists deliver far greater results and have much more far reaching impact than CEO’s. The Steve Jobs’ of the world that have the talent for both are extremely rare. Rand never ceases to impress me. Just an amazing guy.

  • I look forward to seeing how this falls apart..

  • John McMahon

    Yeah, it’s not for everyone that is for sure. Plus being a founder CEO of a Startup is totally different from CEOs in a public company.

    Personally, I found a need to really “up my game” over and over again as the demands grew. You either need to grow quickly into areas that you formerly despised (for me that would be finance, operations, and accounting) and continue to define yourself as a leader, mentor, and steward of the best interests of the company.

    Not everyone can, should, or wants to devote this much time and energy to their career. CEOs are the end of the line and must master many areas of business, even learning fields they’ve always avoided. Public speaking, stressful meetings, dealing with press, management, firing people, lawsuits, missed deadlines, blown budgets, even public humiliation can all be expected.

    Dealing with personal failures and triumphs are all par for the course. Emotional strength and flexibility is the only way forward. You need a combination of confidence, fear, greed, delusion, vision, stoicism, and paranoia to constantly drive the thing forward when nobody else will.

    Ego is a driver for some, but the weary reality of the somewhat thankless CEO job will usually rub off that glossy sheen.

    Also, with notable exceptions, the need to sell (products to customers, ideas to peers, results to stakeholders, the culture to employees) means the best CEOs keep their egos in check. With the professional need to cajole and influence others I see most CEOs exhibit some form of humility, flattery, or gratitude theater usually tempering a CEO’s ego — at least in public.

  • SEOMarketingProgram

    waw… awesome stuff Here…Interesting & Challenging

  • Sean Goodwin

    Great post and topic. I suppose it does depend on what one is the CEO of. I got a lot of feedback recently when on Linkedin I changed my profile from CEO to Janitor. Same roll at a bootstrapping startup but the responses were interesting. While wearing many hats is essential, some just fit better. Getting it right and helping others’ find the fit is a true delight.