SaaS CEO Temperament: Urgency vs. Stress
By Katie Burns
Mar 07 2019
Everything a SaaS CEO does is steeped in urgency. We’re in growing businesses beholden to outpace fast-paced markets. We often run razor thin, allocating as much cash as we can to maximizing our growth rate. But if our outward CEO temperament crosses the line from urgency to stress, bad things happen. Teams lose faith. Investors lose confidence. Customers sense something may be wrong.
In my experience, outwardly stressed SaaS CEOs impede revenue growth. That’s the reason this is an especially relevant Married2Growth topic.
Quality SaaS CEOs push very hard. Managing with and from a sense of urgency is a requirement of short capital and big goals. That urgency can be highly productive and contagious to everyone from executive leadership to interns. It’s often a very positive growth force.
Stressed SaaS CEOs also push very hard. But their pushing comes with outward signs of negativity that can be destructive, and likewise contagious. This seldom lifts an organization to perform at its best.
Steering Positive CEO Temperament
In addition to constantly pushing, quality CEOs also hire people better than themselves. That in and of itself can be stressful. And higher and higher payrolls can result in a profound sense of urgency. Those investments must pay off and it’s on the CEO if they don’t. So there are some pretty good reasons to be stressed. Here are some of the tactics I used to show no stress, manage from a place of urgency, and remain even-keeled.
A lot of outward stress starts with things kept to yourself. In running a SaaS, a CEO is privy to a lot of information that most others in the business aren’t. That can be a heavy responsibility to shoulder. And certain things don’t lend themselves to transparency.
But for everything else, liberation lies in openness. You may have read my article on transparency and accountability that speaks to the organizational dynamics of keeping metrics and KPI results in the open. Now I confess that the real motive there was not shouldering all of that in my own personal vacuum. That’s not entirely true, but it was certainly part of the impetus to move in that direction. When more people know and understand more about what’s going on, everyone is less guarded — including the CEO. Less guarded means more relaxed which looks a lot like less stressed on the outside.
Loneliness is a very real CEO feeling that contributes to stress. Regardless of anything or everything else, the CEO is the captain of the ship and will go down if she sinks. That’s a boat-ton (sorry) of accountability and potential stress. Clear and consistent expectations lead to defined deliverables that are critical to having more people in the boat.
The best way I knew to reduce my loneliness in CEO accountability was to share some of it. That sounds selfish, and it is. But stress reduction is rather selfish, so maybe that’s okay. In any case, we chose to make everyone accountable and to have that accountability clearly relatable to the highest level of performance expectations of the organization. That meant that everyone understood how they were accountable and how their contribution related to what their boss was accountable to. That ran all the way up to me.
Like transparency, when everyone knows what everyone else is accountable to contribute, there are fewer surprises, less veils, and more understanding of hiring and firing. Again, that translates to less outward stress for the CEO, and everyone else for that matter.
Taking care of yourself is a requirement of being a SaaS CEO. What that means to you is likely different than what it means to me, but regardless, it’s not optional. For you, it may mean daily meditation, yoga, a swim, or a bike ride. For me, it meant regular tennis, regular gym workouts, clean eating, drums, and time for family. On top of eating and fitness, sleep may be a priority. Again, how much is personal — I operate well on six hours, but others need eight plus. All of these things burn stress, improve health, clarify thinking, and provide a sense of balance. They’re important.
And then there are day-to-day personal management practices. I stayed sane with preset calendar blocks for meetings, calls, direct reports, and time-boxed personal deliverables. I also had live dashboards of everything I needed to know. And short meetings to keep everyone productive. All of this gave structure to the chaos and reined in surprises. Nobody likes surprises in business. They’re stressful.
If there’s a word that may be too absent from SaaS CEO temperament, it’s fun. Teams of smart people need to have fun to be their smartest. And (gasp) that includes the CEO. Confession: I was very little fun. Others brought that to the table and I encouraged them to do so. I participated, I just wasn’t the fun mastermind.
We were very startuppy… with Friday happy hours and offsite team building activities. We played a lot of foosball (I was the instigator of that activity.) And we had picnics, parties, game nights, hackathons, leadership retreats, and so on. We had a lot of fun that served to bring the team together. That unity included me (my funlessness notwithstanding) and it helped us outperform our size and capital constraints. Turns out that growth is really fun.
This article started out as a plea to stay urgent, not stressed. But it turned into a reflection on the cultural impacts of having a positive CEO temperament. Actually, that was the point all along. Urgency is healthy and productive. Stress is negative and counterproductive. And those are as true about the rest of the organization as they are about the CEO. But it all starts at the top. So go set and maintain a good example, keep the pedal down, and grow your SaaS faster.