1,738 Hours as Co-CEOs: 10 Lessons Learned as We Welcome a New Year
It’s been 1,738 hours since we’ve assumed the roles of Co-CEOs at Canvas and as we welcome a new year, we want to take a moment to reflect on what we’ve learned in our new roles. We recognize that there is quite a bit of mystery around the experience of leading a 100 person company. This is especially true in an industry that glorifies the qualities of tech founders-—a bench that isn’t diverse and a job that hasn’t welcomed people of every background and experience to share their gifts with the world. These reflections aren’t just meant to serve leaders who share our roles, but any individual looking to hone the CEO that exists within them.
1. Proximity Matters: As a mission-driven company, proximity can be the most powerful tool in a CEOs toolbox. Bryan Stevenson, in his book Just Mercy, offers that proximity can welcome a different, more humanity-focused view about the work we pursue each day. For Canvas, proximity means staying close to candidate experiences of the underestimated, the overlooked—career-ready and exceptionally talented folks in pursuit of the companies that will embrace them for exactly who they are. On the company side, it means connecting values-driven organizations, who are centering the effort towards greater equity, inclusion and representation, with candidates willing to explore them.
2. Never Be the “Smartest” Person in the Room: It’s not lost on us that this is our first time serving in these capacities and we’re learning more about ourselves each day than we’ve ever imagined. One of the many learnings is that we’re only as great as the team we surround ourselves with (and we’re lucky that our team allows us to exercise our greatest gifts while also filling our gaps). We’ve recognized the importance of hiring folks 10x greater than we are; leaders that 10x our capacity. We’re not just committed to raising the bar with every hire, but expanding it: quickly acknowledging that pedigree or previous company aren’t the sole indicators of a successful hire.
3. There’s Power in 30 Minutes: When we assumed our roles on October 12, 2021, our first priority was to connect with as many employees as possible. We did this in varying settings: some during 2:1’s, others during team meetings. The outcome? A new point of view about the needs, wants and desires of our employees — each unique in their own right, but united in their call for an employee experience that enables them to actualize into who each of them is meant to be.
4. Saying ‘No’ Is A Lot Harder Than Saying ‘Yes’: As a startup, in a crucible moment of change (not just in leadership, but in product focus), saying ‘no’ is a lot more challenging than saying yes. It’s easy to get caught in the hype of “what comes next”, but it’s far more difficult to determine what you are not going to do. At the onset we made an effort to avoid adding to our team's plate and moved to a posture of making decisions through tradeoffs. We’ve come to know that very few decisions are binary or have singular implications, rather taking on more in the spirit of “focus” requires you to think far more about what you won’t do than what you will do.
5. Wear One Hat: We were recently reflecting on what it means to co-lead this organization together. One of our biggest takeaways was how these new roles could change the way we show up for Canvas day-to-day. The reality is that while our individual scopes have expanded, we show up to each meeting in the same way: as our authentic selves. A change in title could easily welcome a new, performative “professionalism” driven by an expansion in power. We commit ourselves to wearing one hat. We treat employees as partners, independent of level, and work to recognize the unique gifts each person brings to the company as we chart towards our mission. We believe this has enabled us to foster trust, camaraderie and resilience: folks know exactly what they are going to get from us in a pseudo-predictable way. We know that trust is the foundation of psychological safety and will continue to bring this ethos into the new year.
6. Be Deliberate: The first word we shared with one another upon taking on the roles of Co-CEOs was deliberate. Deliberate decision making, deliberate leadership. This required us to be present in every meeting, to be decisive in our shared-decision making, to over-communicate and to pressure test our intuition relative to setting the direction of the company. We’ve come to call this our shared “arrows out” philosophy. That is, we leave each interaction, be it with one another or the broader team, with clear expectations, outcomes and next steps. This new mindset has enabled us to make decisions faster, to move past conflict and to focus more on the problem at hand instead of the person encountering the problem (avoiding forming judgements about the individual's capability).
7. Not Knowing is Okay: Let’s face it. When you’re leading a company of our size and value, it’s easy to succumb to the pressure of always having an answer. In truth, we don’t always know the answer, but we share the commitment to finding it. At times, this means leaning on the diverse team we’ve built to help us surface a solution and at other points this means admitting that we don’t know the “perfect” path and spending time reflecting on what might be possible. In other words, leadership isn’t just about knowing, leadership is about discovering.
8. Focus on Outputs, Not Just Inputs: It’s not lost on us that the pandemic has forced companies to re-imagine their company cultures (especially during one of the most competitive job markets where switching companies is as easy as using a different Zoom link). In 2021, Canvas moved to a remote-first culture. Free-lunch, nap-pods and cool swag no longer stand as the pillars of company culture. These are just inputs. We shifted our mindset to cultural outcomes that we want every employee to experience at Canvas:
- I know why I’m here: Every employee experiences a sense of belonging, purpose and commitment to our mission.
- I have what I need: Every employee has the tools, benefits, information and resources to do their best work.
- I know what I do: Every employee has clarity of expectations: knowing what is expected of them in terms of output (the work product) and behaviors (how the work gets done).
- I know what we do: Every employee understands the HR/Talent industry and the complexity of DEI relative to our mission. They understand how our product influences our customers’ journeys towards belonging.
- I’m proud to be here: Every employee is proud to share in our employee experience and have pride in the mission that we are advancing year-over-year.
Some of this work is ongoing and aspirational. What is codified is our determination towards constant improvement.
9. Our Employees Owe Us Nothing: It’s easy to believe that employees agree to an unrelinquishing level of commitment upon signing, but we’ve found that the connection an individual employee has to the organization is in a constant state of change. As a result, we’re pushing ourselves to be agile in our leadership to meet this change. This means making sure every employee is seen, enabled and readied to do their best work. We understand that some employees will be with us for months, while others will be with us for years. Irrespective of the time spent at the company, we’re committed to celebrating our alumni—they are the evangelists of our mission, have a stake in our long-term success and are our champions from afar. Our alumni have gone off to do amazing things: from starting their own companies to bringing our mission to other organizations just starting their DEI journeys.
10. GTFOTW: Get out of the way: A thought we often have as we conclude each day with the Canvas team. We’re lucky to have attracted a workforce that is gifted, committed and able to do incredible things for the business. When leading, it’s easy to lose sight of the power of empowerment and autonomy when supporting a team like ours. When we micromanage, create unnecessary processes and bottleneck decision making, we not only disrupt the rhythm of the business, but we spend less time on our focus areas as Co-CEOs (and ultimately stifle the potential of our emerging leaders). We’re conscious about our involvement with the day-to-day work of our team and are pursuing a more distributed approach where subject matter experts are enabled to lead at the organization—irrespective of title, position or tenure at the company.
Leading Canvas at this point in time has been a true gift. As we welcome a new year, we welcome the many lessons yet to be discovered on this journey. We are incredibly grateful for the level of trust and partnership our employees and broader community have given us in the last few months. As we continue the search to find Canvas’ next leader, we couldn’t be more thrilled about the future of our company and its mission.
Adam & Tariq, Co-CEOs, Canvas, inc.
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