10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years as a CEO
The tenth anniversary of Bridge Partners has given me the unique opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned as founder and CEO. Building our business hasn’t been easy, but it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve done professionally. Here are some of the key lessons I’ve learned leading a growing professional services business.
It’s about the people. People are the foundation of our business, because everything we do is done by human beings. I like to say that we have a “big tent” at Bridge Partners, with room for a diverse group of professionals. We don’t do cookie cutter, and we recognize that our customers are people, too. Putting people first has been our recipe for success. I’ve learned to recognize that everyone has the potential to be a star, and I’ve learned to align those stars to drive results for clients and for our business.
All we have is our reputation and our relationships. We’re not writing code or selling widgets; we’re in professional services. So what truly matters to us are positive customer experiences. Our clients trust us with their most important work, and that trust is earned through proven capability and meticulous attention to the customer experience. Building trusting relationships that deliver long-term value is the foundation of a successful business.
Success in professional services is binary. One thing I’ve learned along the way is that the best measure of a successful engagement is when a client hires us again. We can deliver 110 percent of what a client needs, but if they aren’t delighted with the experience and willing to hire us again, then we’ve missed the mark.
Don’t be the smartest person in the room—be the strongest collaborator, connector, and communicator. Brains are important, and so are specialized knowledge, strategic vision, and tactical expertise. But what’s most important, in my opinion, is the ability to connect with a diverse set of people and work together to galvanize a course of action that drives business results. A little dose of awareness, humility, and empathy goes a long way.
Celebrate the wins. Our goal at Bridge Partners is to build an enduring firm. Because we’re not planning for an exit, I’ve learned that it’s important to celebrate every achievement along the way. I personally respond to every customer kudos that our consultants and teams receive and gladly shout out achievements like a “Best Place to Work” or a “Fastest Growing Business” award. Here at Bridge it’s about celebrating the journey, because the journey is all we have.
Drama doesn’t help. Having passion for your work is great. However, when passion bleeds over into drama, we make tough situations tougher by inserting tension into relationships and taking focus away from the job at hand. There are times when I have to remind myself to step back and take the high road, because drama never benefits anyone.
Governance matters. Corporate integrity is increasingly important as our organization grows and evolves. I have learned that professional management is different from entrepreneurial management. Coupling unquestionable personal integrity with strong corporate governance and aligned management structures has been instrumental in the health and growth of our firm. It would be all too easy to allow an entrepreneurial enterprise to serve the whims of a mercurial founder. I’ve learned to take care of what we’ve built by empowering a diverse set of leaders to carefully shepherd our vision and values.
Maintain your integrity and vision. Ten years ago, I scrambled and hustled to do great work for clients and to craft a business that would sustain me. Now the firm drives real, measurable value for hundreds of customers and sustains hundreds of people. This would not be possible without a commitment to integrity and a vision for the future. At Bridge, integrity means that we do what we say we’re going to do. And when we’re wrong, we admit it. Our vision is to build a legacy business—the kind of place that values people, delights customers, and effects real change. That vision has evolved over the years, but the commitment to integrity hasn’t changed.
The only constant is change, so don’t hang on too tight. At one point, I was the only employee of Bridge Partners. Now we’re hundreds strong, in multiple cities, with more growth and change ahead. Being flexible in mind, in practice, and in structure has served us well. One of the most important aspects of my role as CEO is to drive positive change through our organization. One thing is for sure, more change is on the way!
Be the ball, Danny. As Chevy Chase said in the classic comedy Caddyshack, “There's a force in the universe that makes things happen—all you have to do is get in touch with it. Stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball.” In all seriousness, sometimes it is simple: Work with people you like and respect. Take vacations. Have fun. Love your family and friends. Be part of a community. Know what you stand for. Living a full life makes one’s work life better. You simply must trust that if you do the right thing, good things will happen.