The case for the community CEO (+ 8 things you can do to be a more community minded CEO)

Last week Allen Stern of Center Networks posted that I was wrong for being a “community CEO.” A community CEO is someone who polls their user base openly, asks for feedback constantly, and engages their audience.

I’m a prototypical community CEO and proud of it.

Allen says this is a failed model for two reasons:

  1. The Customer Loses Faith in the Product
  2. The Staff Loses Faith in their Leader

Given those two reasons it’s fairly easy to dismantle Allen’s arguments, and many people did. That being said I applaud Allen for once again putting himself out there with his opinion. Even flawed opinions have merit when they spark discussion.

In the comments someone claiming to be Anthony Dever retold this story:

  • A couple of years ago I was on a Virgin Blue flight here in Australia that the company’s owner/founder Richard Branson was also aboard. When the flight attendants were coming down the aisle with snacks/drinks, Branson followed them talking to passengers asking them what they would change about the airline if they owned it. He is a guy who knows everything there is about the industry after starting and operating many airlines throughout the world yet still sees the benefit of getting someones perspective on his own business. It certainly doesn’t lessen my opinion of Virgin Blue that the owner asked for our ideas. Though it did enhance my view of them.

Interacting with your audience is a brilliant thing to do for a number of reasons:

  1. It engages your customers in your product. Do the people interacting with Branson in the story above lose faith in the product because he asks them what they would do as CEO? No, exactly the opposite. They see him as an accessible leader who cares and is open to ideas that are not his own. People engaged in your product and how to make it better have an increased chance of becoming product evangelists. Said another way, tell me who’s the CEO of Delta, American Airlines, or United? Exactly.
  2. It demonstrates your open to ideas that are not your own.
  3. It demonstrates your care about the product and the people who engage it.

To Allen’s second point, that your team (notice I use the word TEAM not staff) will lose faith that’s even more laughable. Do you want to work for a boss who just dictates what should be done?

Thinking that you know the solution to problems that your team is engaged in BETTER than them is truly arrogant. While you might know the overall business better than anyone from the captain’s chair, you can’t possibly know whats going on in every platoon. That’s just impossible.

If you’re a great leader you try to hire folks who are SMARTER than you at their position. If they are in fact smarter than you at their position and they spend 10x as much time focusing on it then they have to be better informed than you.

That being said, as CEO you have to take in all the information from the units and develop a strategy. Chess is a solid metaphor, as is basketball. In basketball you look for mismatches that you can exploit, but it’s but one aspect of the game. In chess you look for similar openings to slowly exploit, but no single piece wins the game. Each piece to puzzle is important.

Here is what we’re doing at Mahalo to increase communication and develop the product:

1. STAFF LUNCH: We have lunch four days a week with our ENTIRE team at Mahalo. That’s 50 people around one huge lunch table–it’s crazy. We stole this idea from Google and tried to take it to the next level. Google gives lunch in order to keep people in the building, save them money, make them feel appreciated, and keep them engaged with their co-workers.

We take that to the next level by having the lunch semi-structured. We have different people talk about different aspects of the business at lunch. We showed three upcoming Mahalo Daily shows and got feedback one day this week. Another time we did demos of Facebook, StumbleUpon, Google Analytics, and other search engines. We watch users testing videos as well. Over the next year we will have had lunch four times a week over 50 weeks or so. That’s 200 hours of meetings that would not have happened otherwise.

Is it overkill and overbearing? Sure, if you’re not into the product. The lunch is my test to see how into the company you are. If you’re at lunch laughing and goofing off, or you skip it, or you are not paying attention that says to me you shouldn’t be at the company. If you’re at the lunch taking notes, making intelligent comments, asking questions, and generally engaged…well, you should be at the company.

If you’re not into Mahalo’s mission you’re not going to sit through 16 hours of lunches a month. In other words, it’s my way of checking if you’re into it.

Plus it’s five straight weeks of off-site meetings. Think about that for a minute… five weeks of offsite that you would have never had.

2. We are all involved in social networks and we all talk to our customers. As you might have seen we added the MahaloToDo tag. When someone uses that on Twitter or their blog we do the term they’re asking for. They thank us and get a chance to try Mahalo on for size.

3. I answer every email, IM, skype, etc. I can… it’s up to about 300-500 a day right now. It takes me two hours a day to do this.

4. I ask questions on various services like LinkedIn and Facebook. Allen thinks those questions make me look weak, I think they may me look strong–and I know they give me great information while developing DEEP relationships with people.

5. We blog about what we’re doing.
I’m hoping that every person at Mahalo gets a personal blog. I would mandate that everyone have a blog, but that’s somewhat inauthentic in my mind.

6. We read and respond to people’s blogs when they comment about us. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see my comments on a post within 10 minutes of the post being published. I have alerts on all systems out there.

7. When I do interviews with the press I frequently ask the press questions like “what would you do if you ran Mahalo?” or “Who do you think we’re competing with?” or “What do you think our biggest challenge will be?”

8. I take extra time to engage people who are “haters” or “doubters” like Allen. Allen is vicious to me and instead of coming at him I try to sit next to him and see the chess board from his perspective. Allen’s opinions are valid, even in the cases where they are only valid to him. So, I don’t have a problem doing a little one-on-one with someone who is a little rough. Frankly, I love the “Calacanis wack pack.” The wack pack keeps me honest and focused. When I screw up, which is often, they are the first to come over and start laughing and pointing it out. Which of course means I can refine my game over and over again… it’s FREE CONSULTING.

Openness is not a sign of weakness, it as the ultimate strength. CEO’s are not Gods who are all knowing. The biggest strength an entrepreneur has is knowing they don’t have all the answers. There are better ideas outside of your head then in them–that’s just the law of numbers. Go find or create places where people can debate those ideas. Nurture and feed the discussion around those ideas.

CEO 1.0 was defined as the all-powerful God-like CEO. That’s been over for a long time–with the exception of Steve Jobs who is, in fact, God.