How This Cowboy Hat Reminds the CEO of Zenefits That Hard Work Is Always Worth It
Even though I’ve passed my 50th birthday, most days I still wear the Silicon Valley startup uniform to work: jeans, Converse sneakers, an occasional hoodie. But when I’m not at my day job at Zenefits -- an HR, benefits and payroll software company -- it’s an old cowboy hat that completes my ensemble, much to my wife’s chagrin.
The hat, which hangs in my home when I’m not wearing it, is a daily reminder to love the work, even when the days are long and hard. I put that hat on and it transports me to my family’s horse ranch in north central Washington State, which my brother and I have operated for 25 years.
Every ranch has a slightly different purpose. Ours is to provide irrigated pasture and safety for our 90 horses. If I’m there in the winter when there’s three feet of snow on the ground, we’re feeding them from a flatbed truck or a sleigh. In the summer, they’re either grazing or being used for equine therapy for Girl Scouts or disabled youth across the country.
It’s not entirely glamorous work -- mending fences, hauling feed, tending to the horses. But on a ranch, you have to embrace the grind. Caring for other things really helps you appreciate where you fit in the grand scheme of things. Colts are born, horses die and that cycle of life actually has a positive impact on how I think about seasonality and opportunity. It makes me consider how I want my work to affect other people, and how I want to be in service to other people.
When I took over as CEO of Zenefits 20 months ago, I relied a lot upon that perspective. The company had once been a fast-growing software darling, but off-the-charts growth resulted in the business infamously running afoul with regulators and losing sight of its workplace culture. No shortcut could fix it. We needed to unite our team behind the business fundamentals that are critical to sustainable success. We’ve since built a new leadership team, reset our values and culture and changed our business model. It was -- and is -- a lot of hard work, but it’s paying off for us and for our customers.
Every time I step into the office, I get the same feeling as when I put on my old cowboy hat: It’s time to get to work. You can’t hack your way to success. You’ve got to embrace the grind.