Why This CEO Fired Himself and Asked His Friend to Take Over
A few years ago, when Matt Bodnar was the CEO of a small technology company, he got lunch with a fellow CEO friend. This friend was frustrated; his company was struggling, and he wanted a change. So the two spent 15 minutes or so talking through solutions, and then, to his own surprise, Bodnar said the words that would change his life: “Well,” Bodnar asked his friend, “what if you just took my job?”
“We kind of laughed about it,” Bodnar says. “And then he was like, ‘That’s not a bad idea.’ ”
Bodnar had been coming to accept a difficult truth: Although he had aspired to the position of CEO, he wasn’t actually a fit for the job. It was time to admit that.
Plenty of notable CEOs, like Google’s Larry Page and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, have replaced themselves. But still, it’s more common to hear of the CEOs who struggle and stick it out. They are, after all, the ones still in their jobs and telling their stories -- on stages at conferences, to journalists for magazines. Perhaps they hire an executive coach, or go through deep reflection. Somehow they become the leader their company needs them to be. Then that becomes the narrative: The CEO must persevere.
Bodnar represents a different path -- one that can be just as empowering, and lead to just as much success. But it means making a big change, even bigger than the CEOs who stayed.
As a young man, Bodnar dreamed of being a CEO. He graduated college and worked at Goldman Sachs, then left to be a partner at the Nashville investment firm Fresh Hospitality. The firm owned a struggling point-of-sale terminal company, and Bodnar was tasked with turning it around. At first, he was named CFO. But a year later, in 2011, the little company still needed help. So at the age of 25, Bodnar stepped in as its new CEO. The day he took over, his company was unable to make payroll. “I spent several years basically getting the financial end of the business squared away,” he says -- figuring out what was profitable and unprofitable, putting in the right systems and processes, and so on. Under his leadership, losses stopped. Payroll was made. Bodnar was thrilled.
But he couldn’t maintain momentum. The company was saved, but it wasn’t growing. He’d started some new lines of business, but they weren’t clicking. And although his employees’ jobs were more secure, the office culture was dismal. “I started realizing that this job is not all it’s cracked up to be,” he says, “and maybe it’s not even the right skill set for me.” That’s why, when Bodnar met with his fellow CEO friend, everything clicked: I shouldn’t be CEO anymore. Someone else should.
“That was a transformational moment that fundamentally shifted the way I think about pursuing opportunities,” Bodnar says. He realized he was great at saving companies but not necessarily growing them -- and that was worth embracing. The way he came to see it, nobody should expect to be great at every position. It’s not like people look at Steph Curry and say, “Yeah, he’s a great point guard, but why can’t he play center, too?” The game doesn’t demand it. Curry is great in his role, and that’s greatness. There’s power in knowing what you’re great at, and in not losing time trying to be great at what you’re not.
Today, Bodnar’s old company has grown 40 percent and turns a profit. His friend is still CEO, and Bodnar serves as executive chairman, but he spends most of his time doing what he’s good at: Through his investment firm, he steps in when a company needs to be righted. “I have this rule of thumb I use for myself now, which is to always replace myself,” he says. Come in, help, let someone else take over. In fact, he’s serving as interim CEO of a new company right now. But, he says, it won’t be for long.