I've Gone From Entrepreneur to the Corporate World and Back Again. This Is What It Takes to Lead a Company.
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When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, I had the idea of being an accountant firmly ingrained in my mind. I knew that accounting was a foundational element of business and working in that world would lead to fast success. After my first year of auditing public companies, I became frustrated by not being able to make a bigger difference. Shortly after, I transferred into the Price Waterhouse management consulting group in 1993 and began working on developing new ways to secure internet connected systems. In 1997, I moved to Ernst & Young, and by the time I was 27, I was one the youngest senior managers at the firm, but I felt unfulfilled in my role. It didn't help that I was told I was "too young" to move up to partner.
At that time, my inner entrepreneur was telling me that it was time to leave my job, forgoing my benefits and stability to start my own company. As the CEO of Foundstone, I teamed up with my old E&Y colleagues, didn't get paid for over six months and slept on a bare mattress on the floor of one of our co-founder's houses to get the company running. I knew that cybersecurity was about mitigating business risk, and I built my business around that premise. When the company was bought by McAfee five years later, another career transition followed -- I moved into my next role of general manager and worldwide chief technology officer (CTO) at McAfee.
Although I turned down the role two times before accepting the position of CTO, it turned out to be one of the best career moves. It gave me a much better appreciation for how antiquated the industry was. The entire antivirus industry was behind the curve in creating a cloud-native security platform that looked much more like Salesforce and a lot less like Sibel. Once again, I felt that I wanted more. It was mainly my drive to make a change in the industry that led me to seek another new venture. I left McAfee after seven years to begin my next company in the endpoint security space, CrowdStrike, with the mission to stop major breaches and redefine how endpoint security was delivered from the cloud.
It's been a wild seven-year ride from a budding startup to a global enterprise, but what I've experienced in my entrepreneurial journey has given me a clear narrative on what I think it takes to be a successful CEO.
Although my early career path was a bit unconventional -- from accountant to CEO and entrepreneur to CTO of a major organization and back again to being a founder and CEO -- my path has offered me a different perspective than most. Here are my thoughts on the critical success factors that every modern CEO should consider:
1. Become a subject matter expert in your field.
Today, many CEOs are "professional CEOs," and often excel at running a business but may not be industry natives.
This can limit your ability to anticipate what your customers are looking for and how the market may be evolving. Understanding current and foreseeing future client needs is fundamental to helping your business flourish, as this helps you grow into a trusted advisor to your customer base. A great CEO knows that you need to focus on the client first, and once you are in that strategic advisor role, it can help you expand your network and gain future clientele.
Becoming an expert in your respective industry can also guide you toward the future of your field. Knowing what innovations or changes are on the horizon is key to business evolution and staying one step ahead of the competition. Writing a book doesn't hurt either. It will be your best 500-page business card! We used to have a saying at Foundstone, "Do you want the guys who read our book or wrote the book performing your security work?" The answer was crystal clear.
2. Fail fast; evolve faster.
Yes, being fast and aggressive is absolutely critical to a successful startup, especially early on when you need to out-innovate and outsmart your competitors. But, your business cannot get stuck in a rut and stop evolving with the current trends and technologies available to your field. The Silicon Valley mantra of "Fail fast, fail often" rings true for many tech entrepreneurs, but I believe it's equally important to evolve even faster after failures.
While good companies are those that can excel quickly, the best companies are those that have a long-term vision and know where they are headed.
3. Hiring the best people is as critical as financials.
Business is fundamentally a numbers game through a twofold approach: financials and hiring strategy. Financials are at the heart of every business, and those who succeed in the muddy waters of the business world know that good financial health means you will stay afloat. And since certain business finance fundamentals come down to playing the numbers game well, it's important for the CEO to hire critical members for your team who understand and can perform against this basic principle.
When it comes to hiring, a focus on finding the best is better than worrying about building fancy offices. I followed this formula when I founded CrowdStrike in 2011. This is why I've always focused on hiring individuals based on performance as opposed to location. This business model helped my company to rapidly expand worldwide and harness the brain power of the most qualified people.
4. Create a belief employees can actually get behind -- build your mission.
Building a successful company means stress and constant change. In order to navigate transitions successfully, your employees ultimately have to stand behind your mission and value proposition. Most importantly, they need to believe that they are making a meaningful difference for customers. If these beliefs are ingrained in your culture, your employees will be resilient when you inevitably face adversity.
In the early stages of starting your brand, companies routinely create mission statements -- what they are trying to accomplish. I didn't want my company to just have a static mission statement but to rally behind a common purpose. I knew from the beginning that we were on a mission to stop the bad guys, period. Ultimately, creating a foundation that truly engages your employees to take action forms a type of culture that employees can truly stand behind. At CrowdStrike we tell everyone we don't have a mission statement -- but we are on a mission. When you have passion, mission and purpose, you have limitless boundaries that unlock immense value to you, your shareholders and most importantly your customers!
My journey into entrepreneurship wasn't exactly planned and it hasn't always been easy, but my advice is simple: Education and evolution are critical, always hire the best, and remain steadfast in believing in the change you and your team can deliver.