Reflections From My First Full Year As CEO And Weathering The 2020 Storm

Toby Martin
December 16, 2020
1 min read

2020 marks my first full year as CEO of Extensis. We began the year with some of the biggest goals in the company’s history, and like most, I could have never imagined the challenges we’d face. Nor myself leading the company through them.

Entering into any new role, you are going to be confronted immediately with being the newest person on the job (‘planned incompetence’ as social psychologists refer to it), even if you’ve been there a long time. This brings with it the need to be comfortable with taking on the unknown, not being afraid of making mistakes, and staying in a continuous state of reflection and learning. One of my CEO mentors said the job would be filled with incredible highs, miserable lows, and that it was the job to stay in the middle for the sake of the team. This year certainly swung the pendulum to the extremes and keeping steady in the “middle” hasn’t been easy.

As I reflect on the past year, there’s a lot of key learnings that will be cemented in my new playbook.

People and Health First. Always.

Leading during a pandemic came with no playbook for any of us. While daunting to imagine the course ahead, in many ways the path forward was crystal clear. In any situation, crisis or not, there are many options to explore including delays, investments, prioritization, and all the other tricks we are taught. But in 2020, there were far fewer variables when you realize that taking the best possible care of your team physically and mentally is job number one. ALL others come later.

In a long list of priorities for the year, I am most proud of our team for putting health and wellness at the top of the list. We even managed to squeeze in an award as 2020’s #1 Healthiest Employer in Oregon, a result of the many great programs put in place by our HR and other teams to promote the message that health is wealth!

Keep Your Foot on the Gas but Monitor Your Fuel.

The last 12+ months have been a time of incredible change in a company 27 years old. Change management has been a continual theme for us as we rolled out a new brand, swapped out nearly all of our tech stack from e-com to CRM, went all-in on annual recurring revenue models, did heavy research on segmentation and new / established markets, and launched a brand-new platform. This is just to name a few.

My key lesson in taking on so many big endeavors is to do a better job of aligning dates and deliverables to not cause undue stress. All of these HAD to be done, and the dates were set by the team; however, just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be done as fast as people think.

Success Stems from Core Values and a Strong Culture

When I assumed the role of CEO, a colleague told me I would spend 40-50% of my time on culture. That seemed high. As it has turned out, it has been way lower than reality.

Like many companies, we made an abrupt shift to working from home in March, which could have easily uprooted our culture. What has enabled Extensis to weather the storm is that we are clear as a company on the core values we live by, which we’ve used as our North Star for navigating this year. Culture must necessarily flow from these organizational principles and without them in 2020, I cannot see how any company could survive, let alone thrive.

One bonus is that our teams are still hungry, and our learning culture is alive and well which we leveraged with loads of new training from development to customer success. We’ve invested in our future so when this is all over, we’ll be even better than we were before. A rare feat.

Open, Frequent Communication is the Key to Optimal Performance

The last and most important point I will share is that communication in every facet of the business is the most important way to ensure our people and the organization as a whole perform at their best. Misalignment, territorial disputes, misunderstandings, and so forth stem from lack of honest and open communication, so spend as much time on communication as anything else, and you will find the best in people as they move to work together when given the info they need. Being open also allows a culture of accountability to develop as everyone is given the same details and sets the standard for all teammates about being in a safe and trusting place where you can express concerns, challenges, and learn together.

We email the entire company once or twice a week to share what management is discussing. There are plenty of asynchronous communications to try and replace hallway conversations, and these discussions have helped keep all of us grounded and united.

I’ll sum up this year by pointing out the embarrassment of riches in being able to represent teammates who genuinely care about each other, our customers, and our company as if it’s their own. When I reflect on the greatest advantage we have as an organization, it is the esprit de corps the team shows when challenged. This has been a year that has tested all of us, but without a doubt, I can say that Extensis has come out stronger than ever and I have the best job out there. A luxury in a challenging year.