Lessons I Learned from My Millionaire CEO

My CEO spent nearly 10 years building his company. A few weeks ago, he sold it for $30 million. I have been part of our 30-people company for 3 years, and the small size of our offices made it easy for everyone to know each other and interact on a personal level.

I’ve talked personally to my CEO many times and have been in countless meetings with him. I’ve talked to him on the phone. My desk was never more than 10 meters away from his office, and his door was almost always open. He had this big window next to the door, so that you could aways see who was sitting with him at meetings.

In this article, I want to share 5 lessons I learned from his success story and him as a person.

Recognise the value of people

It was a bright Saturday afternoon right in the middle of last year. I was at home, relaxing, when I got a call from my CEO. I hesitated to take it, but I also knew that following the recent set of events at the company, he had to talk to me. I took the call. 10 minutes into the conversation, he asked me point blank: “Should I fire your manager?”

The answer was yes. It had been months and months of total mayhem at work, and the team dynamics were just not working. The main problem being the person in charge of the cohesion: the manager. It was nothing personal, it was a fact, everybody knew it, and it was starting to turn very ugly. Somebody had to do something.

I was expecting this call from my CEO, because I had sent him an email the day before, asking for a meeting. But I couldn’t believe he was literally asking me this question: “Should I fire your manager?”. We had a very open discussion about the whole situation, we explained everything to each other. It was honest, transparent, and at the end of the day my CEO made the right decisions, because he recognised the value of people.

He recognised that the 2 strongest components of the team (myself an another person), who had been here the longest and were performing the best, could not be sacrificed to bad management. What’s more, these 2 people were really close from resigning if something was not done about the situation.

It took months to fix the damage and build a new, coherent team. Firing a manager is something extremely stressful to do, but my CEO handled the situation like a… boss.

Be transparent

If there is one most important thing I learned from my CEO, it is this: transparency. He taught me and other employees how important it is to let your people know about what is happening at the company, as much as possible. Of course you can’t tell everything to everyone, some information has to remain confidential. But a lot of the times, you can be a lot more transparent than you would rather be.

The structure of our company always helped transparency. We remained a small company until our recent acquisition (30–50 employees). It is no secret that the more people get involved, the harder it is to keep everyone in the know, and to make sure nothing leaks.

I say this is the number one most important thing he taught me because I can tell from my experience at other companies, and from what I heard from people at other companies, that the way my CEO was being transparent majorly influenced the way the company moved forward.

I hear stories from friends complaining about the total lack of transparency at their work. They don’t know how good or how bad of a situation their company is in. They don’t know what kind of financial targets have to be reached. This creates a stressful environment by default, because everybody is always trying to be at 100%, without knowing the required level of productivity. Especially during these challenging economic times, this is not a very viable system.

Whether it was the financial health of our small startup, having to let go of some people, or the targets each team had to reach to maintain the company afloat (especially at the peak of the corona pandemic), our CEO always did his best to tell us everything he was allowed to tell us. He didn’t hide behind corporate responsibility excuses to obstruct relevant information, and I’ll remember this lesson for the rest of my professional career.

Treat everyone the same way

Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company with thousands of employees, or the CEO of a 50-people startup, you never have an excuse to not treat everyone the same way.

I can say with almost total certainty that my CEO talked to me the same way he talked to:

  • Our wealthy head of finance
  • Our multi-millionaire chairman
  • My manager
  • The cleaning guy
  • The intern

Except for a few times where things really went south and he lost his temper (which in a way is also a way to be transparent), I never saw him treat people a specific way based on who they were.

Don’t pay yourself for the first 2 years

It’s not a rule to not pay yourself when you start a company. This will depend on the financial health of your project, but in many cases, you won’t see a lot of money coming into your checking account during the launch phase. In the case of my CEO, he didn’t make a dime for the first 2 years at his job. He is the founder and CEO, he created his company from the ground up, and he had no option but to reinvest all the money made into further development, at least in the beginning.

Organize ruthlessly

The image above is a screenshot of my CEO’s calendar. It contains business as well as personal events. He always saves it all up under his company email, so everybody can see what he was up to on the general google calendar.

For some some confidential business meetings, he made sure to set the settings to not display the title of the meeting and/or the attendees. But again, you can never be 100% transparent, especially as the company keeps growing and you’re looking at a potential acquisition. Information can’t leak.

In any event (pun intended) the image above testifies to the level of organisation my CEO is committed to.

We’re often told the lessons above are good principles to follow in life. Be honest (transparent), treat everyone the same way, acknowledge people… But how many of us actually care about all this? Witnessing firsthand those lessons being applied by my CEO has definitely had more impact on me than sheer theory.

As I said in the beginning of this article, my CEO recently sold his company for $30 million. Following the announcement of the acquisition, it was made clear that he was not going anywhere. We were going to stay the same, just more secured financially, which is a blessing in such uncertain economic times.

My CEO reinvested a large amount of his personal profit into growing the company even more, and he will keep his responsibilities for at least the next few years. Why? Because he’s passionate, driven, and because he can’t sit still doing nothing for more than 2 minutes. That’s the power of entrepreneurship done right.

By Joseph Mavericks