Aligning What I Love with What I Do
A few years ago, I was sitting in my office late at night, wondering if I had become a corporate sellout. I was 24, had 150 employees and netted US$20 million in sales. I had achieved all of the goals I had ever set out for myself, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Was I trading in some of the most productive years of my life to build a company I was no longer passionate about?
As I sat in my office that night, I wrote in my journal: “I’m not sure I’m the right person anymore to lead the
company into its next stage of growth. We need to make some changes to hit our goals. Scary to think about; it’s terrible to have lost some of my confidence.” I then wrote an e-mail to our CFO regarding succession planning. I wasn’t sure whether we should try to get acquired, or keep the faith that we’d get to the US$60-$70 million in annual revenue we needed to go public and stay on track for an IPO. At certain points, I had lost faith in myself and my business.
It wasn’t until October, however, that my foundation was truly on the verge of crumbling. In the same week, my best friend and my business partner got cancer (they are now both doing well), and a company that was looking to acquire us said that they weren’t moving forward. Through that baptismal fire, I came to a critical understanding of myself and what I needed to do to align what I love with what I do— something I’ve been preaching for five years in speeches, but only half-heartedly living. This realization helped me discover my authentic self, and I managed to make a lasting change in my life and business. Here are three things I decided to change:
I aligned my long-term life mission with what I do every day. My life mission is to “be a leader of our generation as we work to end extreme poverty in our lifetimes.” While I was learning a lot about leadership and management—and being paid to do it—I was unclear about how building a company aligned fully with my desire to end extreme poverty in the developing world over the next 50 years. The incessant question in my head was whether I’d be better off finding my replacement or moving to Africa to invest in entrepreneurs. I wound up launching an expanded corporate social responsibility (CSR) model that emphasized my mission. Since we’ve expanded this CSR program, I’ve been able to see the immediate connection between my passion for social responsibility and what I do at work every day.
I changed my company’s values. I realized that we had 10 “corporate values,” but I could only remember four of them without reading the sheet. At an EO executive-education program I attended, I learned that you should never have more values than you can remember, and that to be worthy of being a company value, you’d have to be willing to let someone go if they didn’t live up to it. Today, we hire and fire by our new values, and we hold each other accountable to them.
I let go of control. The best thing I’ve ever done for the growth of my company was to let go of control (I’m still working on this skill). We have a six-person senior leadership team, all of whom do their jobs much better than I can. We also have a 13-person leadership team underneath them, all of whom have more business experience than I do. When I realized that my job was not to ensure they did their jobs the right way, but to enable them to do their jobs and hold them accountable for the results, my world shifted.
As a result of these key changes, we found complete alignment as a business. What’s more, I no longer question whether I’m a corporate sellout just putting in my time. I’m surrounded by amazing people who know how to do what they do so much better than I ever could, and I couldn’t be happier!
Ryan Allis is CEO of iContact Corp. Visit www.intellicontact.com or e-mail Ryan at