The SaaS CEO ‘Whatever it Takes’ Hangover
By Katie Burns
Feb 21 2019
Every SaaS CEO I’ve ever worked with has decreed “do whatever it takes” during an important month or quarter. I’ve applied that same SaaS CEO management tactic more than several times. So I get it. We just get to the point where we feel that “whatever it takes” is the wide-open empowerment needed to motivate people to take it to the next level. And it works. So then maybe we do it again, and again. And again?
This is a cautionary tale for SaaS CEOs to use short-term motivational tactics sparingly. To understand the consequences. And to manage the risks.
“Whatever it takes” first and foremost suggests that you’re not already doing the things to make your numbers.
Diminishing Returns of Short-Term Tactics
Before we get to the hangover from this party, I’d like to focus on the diminishing returns of the “whatever it takes” psychology. “Whatever it takes” first and foremost suggests that you’re not already doing the things to make your numbers. Once in a while you can play that card. More often than once in a while and you’re sending the message that your 365 MO is misguided. That doesn’t translate into confidence in you as the CEO, your leadership team, or your strategy.
But Dad Said I Could Do It
…people begin to wonder why you have the rules if you really don’t need them.
Another downside is the permission to blow up the rules. Again, occasionally blowing up processes is fun (maybe even therapeutic). Beyond that, people begin to wonder why you have the rules if you really don’t need them. Well-designed SaaS management processes are explicitly designed to scale, scale, scale. The whole point of the model is growth, and nothing should impede that. So, if the very processes you’ve put in place to help you scale fast are actually in the way of that very mission, you’re sending a very dangerous signal to your organization.
Staying Off the Road to Bad Habits
To me, the kicker is that the organization needs to experience negative consequences from doing “whatever it takes”. Otherwise, you’re on the road to some very bad habits that may be arguably not-so-bad. And that’s very, very bad. Three-year scalability and value can be completely undermined by bad habits borne of short-term SaaS CEO management tactics.
Three-year scalability and value can be completely undermined by bad habits borne of short-term SaaS CEO management tactics.
OWNING THE FALLOUT
Those of you who are regular readers know I believe in management transparency. This is a perfect opportunity to practice some. When the organization experiences the negative consequences from the CEO’s mandate to blow off the rules, she or he needs to own that responsibility.
- One, rather than hide them, you need to make everyone aware of those consequences.
- And two, you need to take the full burden of accountability for them.
This helps frame short-term thinking in longer-term value and helps you pull your people and processes back to the things that will make your strategy truly and sustainably successful.
SHARING THE WHY BEHIND THE WHATEVER
Next, you need your organization to understand why it was so important to blow off the rules. (Hopefully, you had a good reason.) Perhaps you needed to make a number to qualify for more funding to keep growing. Or maybe sales or customer success was so painfully close to making their stretch bonuses that you just wanted to make sure they got there. Hopefully, the big picture makes sense, and the reason was valid.
And hopefully, it wasn’t that your goals were baseless and unrealistic. That would track back to mismanagement. But, if you did make that mistake, own it. Learn from it. And let everyone know how it happened and how you’re changing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
What you don’t want is the perception that everything was normal and you popped the stack without a reason. Disrupting people’s jobs for fun isn’t the best way to inspire confidence and retain talent. Disrupting their jobs for the greater good has a much better ring to it.
Steering Clear of the Hangover
To summarize, at some point, your SaaS CEO motivation is going to sound a lot like “do whatever it takes” or “just make it happen”. The keys to invoking that tactic lie in understanding and managing the consequences.
- Use short-term tactics sparingly
- Justify the reason for the disruption
- Own the consequences
- Explain why exceptions can’t be norms
As long as you can keep short-term tactics from causing you long-term pain, use “whatever it takes” to make your point. But the moment the organization crosses that line from order to chaos, it also crosses from short-term value-building to long-term value-crushing. Three-year scalability isn’t served with mayhem. Keep the wheels on to keep rolling.