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Evolving As A CEO

by Jennifer L. Nelson

The most effective leaders learn from their mistakes, one another

It’s no secret that a company CEO has to wear a lot of different hats. From making the day-to-day management decisions to motivating and inspiring employees to implementing the company’s short- and long-term goals, it’s a demanding job that requires continuous learning and growth as a leader.

That’s why it’s crucial to learn from their fellow CEOs, in addition to start-ups, entrepreneurs, and other business professionals—and, to understand that being a company president or CEO can ultimately mean fulfilling a wide array of different roles.

“A lot of people don’t realize that when you’re starting a company, you can feel like both the CEO and the janitor at the same time,” says Patrick Murphy, president of Gridless Power in Collingswood.

Gridless Power was founded in 2010 when Murphy teamed up with long-time friend Jason Halpern to develop new ways to deliver reliable power in any critical situation. What initially began as a solar power firm flourished as they developed innovations in the battery and control system to make portable energy a viable option.

“We learned that we had to ask a lot of questions along the way,” he says. “I’ve found that you can ask two experienced, competent, successful business people the same question and get two completely different answers. … So, today, that’s reflected in one of our company policies: get as much feedback as you can.”

When you’re getting your business off the ground, that learning curve can be huge. According to Justin Tinel, president of Ground Swell in Egg Harbor, every CEO is going to make mistakes—but it’s how you learn from them that matters most. “You have to learn from every mistake in business that doesn’t put you out of business,” he says. Tinel launched the company in 2001 with high school friend Kurt Kwart, and over the past 14 years they have continued to grow and evolve their business model, he says. Ground Swell provides IT services such as technical helpdesk support, computer support, and consulting to small and medium-sized businesses.

But when it comes to ensuring a company’s continued success, that’s where the importance of mentors and learning from fellow presidents and CEOs comes into play.

“The biggest help we’ve received came in the form of advice from people who had done it all before, and had already experienced the challenges we were facing,” Tinel adds. For example, one of the biggest lessons Murphy learned as CEO was the value of a dollar; that is to say, how expensive it actually was to run a business. “You quickly learn that a million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but when you start a payroll, it actually only translates to a few employees,” he says.

That team of employees is crucial to the success of any business. Among a CEO’s most important roles can be serving as both a motivator and a cheerleader for their team when it comes to setting and achieving the company’s goals. “One of the biggest lessons I learned is the importance of the people on your team,” Tinel says. “It’s the only thing the competition can’t duplicate.” And, of course, a CEO’s relationship with their employees often has to be cultivated outside of the boardroom. “Some of the greatest insight can come from a passing conversation with an employee during lunch,” he adds.

Still, many presidents and CEOs of startup companies had to learn the hard way that, sometimes, they can be completely on their own when it comes to the success of their business. “You learn quickly that nothing is going to fall into your lap … you have to go out and get it,” says Len Ward, president and CEO of Commexis in Haddonfield, which provides digital solutions like search engine optimization, website design and support, and social media services to marketing agencies, law firms, and service-based companies. “You have to be proactive and aggressive and professional at all times, and whatever it is that you want, you have to go and get it.”

After working on Wall Street at a time when clients were just starting to invest in Google and Amazon, he decided to branch off on his own and teach himself the tools he would need to help businesses take advantage of everything the internet had to offer. “The most important thing you can do is make sure to surround yourself with people who can help you achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve … and to know your own weaknesses,” he adds. “Whether it’s sales or bookkeeping, you can’t do it all—and you need the right people in place to help you succeed.”

A CEO may always have to be concerned with how the company is serving its customers or clients, but a common misconception is that as CEO, you’re “the boss.” According to Dave Hanrahan, president and CEO of Capital Bank of New Jersey in Vineland, Woodbury Heights, and Hammonton, that’s not always the case. “The most demanding aspect of my position is that, ironically, as CEO of a bank I feel like I have more bosses today than at any other point in my career,” he says.

In Hanrahan’s case, that includes the 462 stockholders of Capital Bank and regulators like the FDIC and the New Jersey Department of Banking. He has served as a community banker in South Jersey since he was 17 years old; first at Lenape State Bank in West Deptford before moving on to spend 16 years of his career at what is today Fulton Bank of New Jersey. “I had the advantage of working for really good bankers early in my career … and I wouldn’t be a fraction of the banker I am today without that experience,” he says. In 2006, he was chosen by the organizers of Capital Bank of New Jersey to serve as its founding president and CEO ... and he quickly learned exactly what being a CEO actually entails.

“Every day I try to make sure that Capital Bank does what’s right and fair for our customers, and also what’s in the best long-term interest of our stockholders,” he concludes. “But I also try to demonstrate to our employees my willingness to personally do any of the things we expect of them … whether that’s dealing directly with the rare unhappy customer, picking up trash in the parking lot, or any of the other less glamorous aspects of our profession.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 5, Issue 4 (April, 2015).
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