May 14 2004

Who’s The Boss?

That’s not just the title of a mediocre 1980’s sitcom starring Tony Danza, it’s a question I get periodically, including last week in an interview. A writer I know is working on an article on entrepreneurship and asked me, “Before you started your own business, how did you like working for other people?”

The question made me think a little bit. I know what she was asking — how I liked being the boss instead of working for one — but the way she phrased it is interesting and revealing about what it’s like to be a CEO. One of the biggest differences between being in a company and starting or running one is that you’re not working for a person, you’re working for many people.

As CEO of the company, I work for a Board and shareholders, I work for our customers, and I work for our employees. That’s how I approach the job, anyway.

Return Path’s Board of Directors is my boss, even though I’m one of the people on it. I report to the Board, and the Board is responsible for hiring and (hopefully not) firing the CEO, so technically, that’s my boss. The Board is also made up (for small private companies, anyway) of representatives of our biggest shareholders. As the main owners of the business, they are concerned with the growth, profitability, and overall health of the company, and they want to make sure we are building shareholder value day in, day out. That’s one very important perspective for me to have every day.

But I also work for our customers. I have to see myself as serving them — and more important, I have to steer the organization to believe that our customers are at the top of our food chain. If I do, then things will go well in the business. We will have the right products in the market at the right time to bring in new accounts. We will have a tremendous service delivery organization that wows customers and keeps them coming back for more. We will beat out our competition any day of the week. We will keep people paying our bills!

Most important, though, I work for our employees. This is very simple. An organization thrives because the people who make it up come to work inspired, focused, and productive. When they don’t, it doesn’t. I can’t wave a wand and make everyone happy all the time, but I try to focus a significant part of my time on making sure this is a great work environment; that the managers and executives are religiously focused on developing, managing, and motivating their teams; and that we’re doing a good job of communicating our mission, our values, and why each person’s job is important to the cause. This one’s the hardest of the three to get right, but it’s worth the effort.

Certainly, I don’t respond to each of my “bosses” every day as I would a direct supervisor, but in the long haul, I have to balance out the needs and interests of all three constituencies in order to have the organization be successful.