My CEO Experience — reflections

Paul Bowers
14 min readMar 17, 2022

In the past 2 years, I joined and left Renew, a c$2.5M turnover for-purpose member organisation supporting household sustainability. Here’s what I learnt — and wish i’d known — in a loose list. I’ll avoid restating the obvious stuff found in all those Lead Like Sandberg / Aragorn / Obama books, and put the personal stuff up front.

My first experience as a CEO had extraordinary highs and deep lows. I faced the task of modernising an organisation during all the challenges of the pandemic. Like many, I had Board members and staff who were talented, supportive and inspiring, and also some that made it unnecessarily hard. But i learned a huge amount — about both leadership and my way of doing it — from both the good and the bad.

After three meetings of the Board elected in Nov21, i decided to leave; it was clear that there was clear blue water between mine and the Board’s visions for the organisation. And in that departure — in writing this — I reflect that my predecessor in the role never intervened, never said a word publicly about the changes we went through. I respect that a lot: it’s important that when you cede the stage, you properly depart. There’s no useful role for a departed CEO casting critique from the wings as the show goes on.

Authenticity is hard

There will be many different perspectives on my work as CEO. In some, I’ll look good, in others i won’t. Most people of course won’t notice. And that’s my first takeaway as a CEO: the way you are painted by others has less to do with your actions than you think. You are what others need you to be.

Maintaining authenticity is said so often as being part of being a leader. There are whole books on just that. But no-one mentions the most important reason: others thrust their inauthentic versions of you onto you with such force and permanence as to make you lose yourself. The first battle for authenticity is to maintain it for yourself.

Advice?

  • Be your goofy/funny/weird whole self at work — when I did, it was better. I’m sure some found my ‘manual of me’ quite weird to receive from a new CEO, but it helped me be authentic.
  • Actively disavow other people’s perceptions. See them, note them, don’t let them into your soul unless you agree with them
  • Lean into your aptitudes and don’t be shy of your preferences. I re-started doing hasty sketches instead of descriptive emails, for example.
  • Don’t let your insecurities about what a CEO should be stop you being you. Don’t imbibe media/film nonsense (You don’t have to run every meeting, you don’t have to make every decision). Your accountabilities are described — how you strive to achieve them is just your style.
  • Be consistent in your self across all fora. When a staff member comes to a Board meeting, they should see you are exactly the same person as in the office. (I remember putting on a tie for a Board meeting at Museums Victoria. I’d never do that now — tie all day, or no tie all day.)
CEO Starter kit

Identity eats evidence for breakfast

Alongside the excellent outputs (magazines, events, advocacy at national level), the audited financial statements, staff surveys, rising member cohort age and the emergence of new organisations spoke to a slow decline. The solution was to re-radicalise (radical — from the inherent, the root): to take the organisational purpose and apply afresh to the challenges of today. But a significant cohort of socially-connected individuals did not see things this way. For this group, their identity was built within and around the straight-line trajectory implied by the organisation’s history. When they felt the future vision did not honour continuity with this past, opposition to change emerged fast and strong. This opposition to change held some validity too, of course. Nothing is 100% true one way.

But this opposition-because-identity-is-challenged is a real issue in any organisation with cohesive community longevity-then-stasis. I found it in Museums (try telling Curators or Designers that audiences aren’t into their beautiful rigorous thing), and I found it here — a story that runs like this:

In a time, years ago, a group of radicals/reformers/visionaries set out to change the world. They did amazing work. Then, in this new world, they kept doing the old thing. What’s visionary became what’s blinkered. But taking off the blinkers is hard, when the long-questing group have attached their identity to the group and the quest.

Lessons? If you can (if there isn’t a pandemic and financial pressure),

  • go slow
  • develop the stories with the people who disagree
  • emotionally connect with the superfans first by connecting with the origins
  • celebrate the history
  • build the evolving story out of the past — make it a new chapter not a new novel
  • go slower. no, slower than that

Most importantly, have evidence but don’t rely on it: it won’t work. Change is about identity — emotional connection and storytelling are the only things that will bring people together behind a vision.

Questioning yourself is reasonable but don’t overdo it.

I had to make some redundancies. I’ve been made redundant in the past, it’s horrible to receive. It’s also horrible to do. But without doing it, the whole organisation would have ended. This is a moral quandary, and it’s why there’s a CEO to hold that responsibility. Was I doing the right thing? I spent weeks rolling this around my head. One of my teenagers dragged me out of the swirl when they asked, do you think an a**hole would spend this much time worrying about it?

It’s right to questions yourself. But actions are necessary. In the end, every redundant staff member got more than they would have done under an a**hole CEO — our HR consultant told me how work the rules to pay out less and i wouldn’t do it. Again, it doesn’t change how you are painted by others. But knowing i wrestled with it and chose my own course does mean i can sleep at night.

Skills and knowledge don’t matter as much as you think. Values and reliability matter much much more than you think.

You can learn skills, you can read a book. But whether or not you show up, call the person back, answer the slack message, sit with the distressed person — that’s about your character, not your learning.

If you are thinking ‘I don’t know enough to be a [senior leader/CEO]’ then you are thinking about it wrong. Similarly, being an expert does not qualify you at all to be a CEO.

I knew very little about sustainability, or senior financial management, or fundraising, or the charity sector, or publishing. I had to learn all that. But a CEO is not the soloist — they’re the conductor. Letting go of technical specialism is crucial.

I knew when something was fair and reasonable, and I knew how to sift and assess opinion and evidence to make fair rational decisions. I’m proud that in my farewell messages from staff, nearly all of them have picked up on this as a talent I have. I would recommend make decisions as a non-expert, from a range of partial evidence points as a skill that ambitious people should cultivate.

Change is hard, takes ages and is fragile & that’s outside CEO control

Embedding change takes years. The changes of 2020 were only just starting to bear fruit when I left. You just have to keep onto a very simple story of where you’re all headed, and keep repeating it. Have ‘mantra questions’ that you use every time a decision is needed, such as ‘does this help or hinder Australian household sustainability?’, ‘does this serve members’? You’ll know you’re getting there when staff reflect this back to you when they have an idea — ‘we should do this because ____’.

So ultimately, it takes a community to change. Everyone has to get on the train and go with you. A leader without followers is a loner, and a change without a community is just a dream. The CEO can influence, but it has to be working with the contour of the landscape.

Aligning culture, purpose and systems is the superpower

There are a million different models out there for culture change, management systems and all that. Six Sigma! Lean! The thing is, an 6 hour Ottolenghi recipe doesn’t help me when i try to whip up dinner from what’s actually in the fridge.

What does help is a consistent re-circling around purpose, culture and systems. Focus on purpose means doing something different… Oh, we need to change a system a bit… OK, that’s done…Ah, now we need to get these two departments working better together… OK, do that. Right, how are we traveling now? What can be better?

Microtweaks! Creating a culture that constantly designs and implements microtweaks, and a system that rewards their impact, beats ‘train everyone in the New Cool Management Ideology’ every time.

I did loads of things that I thought would be seen as fussy, but they made a huge difference. I made systems legible and interoperable:

  • Redesigned the financial codings so we could isolate and study different parts of the organisation
  • Changed the filing structure when migrating to the cloud to align with the finance structure (not individual’s names!)
    (Job 300, 301 etc are the Comms department in the finance system. 300 Communications is the folder name on the server)

Changed Board reporting to be by department / function (matching the finance system or course) and having managers write their sections. This meant Board got higher quality information, and managers were communicating ‘directly’ with the Board.

We found ways to change the systems and the culture together, for example an issue was that the Membership team were not well connected with the Comms team’s outgoing comms, so we created the ‘outgoing-comms’ slack channel:

Keeping all staff aware of all outgoing comms

Yes these are tiny things. None of them look impressive — you couldn’t claim them as success points on a CV and they won’t impress 95% of recruiters. But this is what actually works. The microtweaks build and build until the culture is different; infinitely better than the three-day workshop on that Capitalised Management System! that everyone forgets after a month.

It’s really hard to change a culture of overwork

When I arrived, there was a staff member with 22 weeks of Time In Lieu owing. Evening work was normal. The passion for the Cause, particularly in senior staff, set damaging precedents of ‘always on’, and the pandemic made it worse. It was with me and the management team to set some new cultural behaviours,

  • lunchtimes! set your slack status to the noodle bowl and take your hour (management team were better at this than me!)
  • assert lack of capacity; “I won’t get to this until next week”
  • Wellness Days: during the worst of the pandemic lockdowns, we instituted 9-day fortnights
  • Frequent talk about flexitime / time-shifting not meaning overwork — the fact that that one member of staff chooses to work evenings because they picked kids up from school at 3.30 does not mean you have to log on at 9pm to respond
  • Time Off In Lieu recorded and granted
  • Vaccinations happened in work time, not taken as sick leave.
  • Being really clear in Board reports ‘this won’t get done because we do not have staff capacity’ — and it was on me to wear Board disappointment with lack of progress

Management team doing these things publicly is the only way to effect change, even though here, I did not fully succeed. The financial precarity of a For-Purpose organisation will always lead passionate staff to over-work themselves. And in a competitive work market, there will be pack-the-CV behaviours. That’s on the wider social culture too but I’ll always be surprised by how hard it is for people to stop.

Stepwise problem solving — the nightmare of CRMs

The CRM could be an entire post all on its own but I’ll just share the generic lesson. When i started, a poor CRM was operational but only half-developed. I saw within a week that it needed ditching, and it was rightly a hot-button issue for the Board. There were many opinions about it, so rather than react quickly I found a great specialist consultancy, Blue Bike, to do a proper review — what’s happening, and how do we get ourselves out of it. The report formed a roadmap we could and did follow.

The key here was to recognise that CEO effectiveness is found over a timescale of years, not months, and that sometimes haste creates more problems than taking time to properly plan.

And the culture change is important too — taking time to reflect on what’s gone wrong before haring off to another solution is demonstrating, at an organisational level, what we should all be doing as individuals: act, reflect, redirect, act.

Consultants, used judiciously, are useful but arouse a bizarre dislike

This took me by surprise. I did not know people had such reactions to the mere idea of consultants. When I restructured, I created a single mid-level accountant role, and employed an external accountancy firm, William Buck, as a ‘Virtual CFO’ at a rate of a couple of thousands of dollars a month. The total cost of this was less than the time devoted by three staff previously, but there was a lot of opposition to ‘replacing staff with consultants’.

Here’s the rationale. Our external CFO had fifteen years of experience doing nothing but accountancy. He was backed up with professional staff and systems. And accountancy is hard. Entire volumes of standards to know, judgements around audit questions, maintenance of controls, etc. I was buying a few hours of top-of-the-line advice. To have a member of staff with that level of knowledge would have required paying very high wages, for a service only actually needed for a few hours a month. I don’t keep a car mechanic on staff for the two times a year my car needs their expertise. I pay a lot of money when I do need it, but that’s less that the garage pays them as a salary all year.

So why not remove all staff and use one firm for all accountancy? Because that would be expensive, and would also impact internal culture. It’s important staff get the money side of things, and to do that they need a colleague with that angle on the work.

Part of being a CEO is knowing where to place your money to get the best result. And a hybrid of internal and external, in this case, made sense.

Boards are make-or-break for an organisation

Governance isn’t management. It is a real skill that you simply don’t see until you’re up close to talented board operatives. And few others understand it. For example, I encountered many who believed that everything the Board did should be subject to member scrutiny. Well, no, that’s stifling. Board are elected to do a job, they have to be able to get on with it!

I would characterise the two classes of activity control and enable and future focus. The former was characterised by financial reviews, risk management, statutory reports and so on. The latter was embedded within strategy, business planning and people and culture.

There is an essential rhythm to Board activities that makes everything flow smoothly. Work delegated to subcommittees is done by/with CEO/Management and then proposals go up to the full Board for voting etc. And the full Board meetings, every 6 weeks or so, receive management reports and presentations from staff.

And in this, the separation between Board and Staff was respected and understood. Staff work 40 hours per week, for pay. Board members volunteer 6 or so hours a month (more in a crisis) for free. And they have accountabilities that staff don’t — financial, legal. Staff doing their jobs correctly are no legally liable for Work Health and Safety, the Board members are. Fines and custodial consequences apply. Extreme example, but it’s important to know the difference.

I discovered the value of templates again and, in a different way, of calendars. Because Boards focus on multi-year horizons, there’s a need to have a really clear calendar of what is going to be done each year. It would be really easy to drift, but a good Board shapes the year’s high-level work. For example, during 2020 we ignored Policy reform, but in 2021 it because a focus and we built a timetable of policies to re-write. Sounds banal, but some policies dated from 2011 and this was a lot to do with not having a calendar-based prioritisation framework.

When I arrived there was distrust between Board and Staff. Not uncommon. Helping to fix that:

  • every other staff meeting we would have a Board attendee, and every Board meeting would have a staff member do a ‘What do i do?’ presentation/discussion
  • Staff Liaison Group — two people selected by staff — would attend all People and Culture sub-committee meetings. They’d gather staff thoughts before the meeting, to give a report on how staff were going. This was immensely helpful in navigating COVID wellbeing issues
  • I shared all Board papers with staff (redacted for any personal info such as salaries) and took questions. So every strategy paper, every Constitutional update assessment, was public to staff.

I’ve written before about the Board being different to any line management relationship. They navigated my performance appraisal through a matrix of scores from each member, and also went to staff through the Liaison Group. This yielded great data — where Board and Staff agreed, or the Staff and I agreed but the Board didn’t, all provided useful data. What wasn’t being said/reported/done? What was lovely here was that the review was partly of me, partly of us all. It was data to move forward, not the drifting dot-point critique of a civil service appraisal.

Advice for CEOs?

  • Expect your Board to steer using time as the lens
  • You have one Board, not 7–12 line managers. Individual members have voice and agency, but they don’t actually have authority. The good ones know that and will never instruct you. But when they warn you you’re doing it wrong — listen and change before the whole Board asks for a meeting without coffee.
  • Learn who’s useful to you for what issue. Comms? Legal? Something technical? Call them, get a steer, move forward. Don’t bring everything to the entire Board
  • Assume you have agency and get on with it. I spent too long in my first months hesitating and checking, which an experienced CEO wouldn’t have done. You’re in charge. So charge.

The energy sector is very very white-cis-straight

I hadn’t realised how my time in Museums led me to expect a queer-ish undertone to everything. Museums are very far from perfect in this regard of course. But what i really noticed in Energy was a monolithic way of thinking about fundamentals. It was hard to find anyone else questioning the deep assumptions. As an example, so much is modelled around homeowners. Renters, 2nd (3rd) homes and Airbnbs, social housing, isn’t really on the radar within energy sector praxis. To raise these is to outsider yourself.

The groupthink emerging from normative cultures of practice was at times stifling. #notallenergyprofessionals of course, and there are notable leaders and orgs working to change this too.

Endings

Just like this piece, the end of being a CEO kinda fades out. Handing over CEO functions is tough because they’re all embodied in relationships that you can’t document. You know not to call Jeff at the end of the month because that’s when he’s doing Board papers — but it isn’t the sort of thing you write down.

What I also can’t do is give sufficient thanks or pay sufficient respect to my team. Over the past two years, they worked harder, supported each other better, were kinder and funnier than any group i’ve had the pleasure to work with. And while delivering more during a pandemic than i thought possible. They are all amazing.

It’s interesting how quickly the waters close over your head. Your influence is positional, regardless of your qualities. And that’s a good thing. So on that note, best of luck to whoever comes next!

Postscript: Would I do it again?

For the right mission, and the right Board, hell yeah. I’m good at it, I enjoy it, and Board members and staff alike have told me i should. Let’s see!

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