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A peek inside a leader's mind
What I remember about being a COO
I remember the day I was asked if I would consider being a COO. It wasn't something I'd ever considered for myself. I said I needed to think about it.
I remember sitting back and thinking "Who me"? That feeling stuck with me for several days. Then I wondered if the offer was real. Wondered if I was the only option.
I remember talking it over with my husband. Our conversation dotted with questions about how it might change our lives, how it might impact my career. Over takeout Thai, we talked about whether I was ready for the rigors of leadership.
I remember why I decided to take the role. I was ready for the challenge and wondered how I might be able to help create a good working environment for others.
I remember a month into my role, boarding a plane bound to Berlin, the birthplace of the company, clutching my ticket tightly in my hand. My nerves jangling, I talked to the woman next to me. She'd forgotten her laptop at home so she was feeling chatty. We spent the flight talking about what to do in Berlin, the art scene in New York, her favorite pilates instructor on YouTube and how to heal nagging back pain.
I remember her name was Valerie. She grew up in Paris, had lived in Berlin and now resided in New York.
I remember an 80 hour week — long planning meetings with my team, a coffee meeting with a peer on a wood bench, having tea with the head of marketing while birds flitted about, going out for dumplings with the engineering team, jumping on a trampoline at a public park. I remember jumping high in the air, feeling as free as my hair flying around me.
I remember after a long week of planning, going out for tacos, guacamole and margaritas with my team. We laughed and cheered to all the projects we planned to accomplish in our first 90 days together.
I remember feeling grateful and more confident that I could do this job.
I remember the first time someone raised their voice to me. I'd been in my role just a couple of months. The pain they felt was readily apparent. I knew I wasn't the cause but desperately wanted to alleviate it. I spent hours working on solutions to their long brewing problem.
I remember finding a solution and their disappointment when it wasn't the one they hoped for. I felt disappointed too. I carried it with me for a week.
I remember the day I announced my first unpopular decision. We made it as a group but it was my job to share it. The next two days my slack DMs filled with disappointed messages, Zoom calls punctuated with pointed questions. Their unhappiness stayed with me all weekend. I sat staring out the window wondering if I could have done anything differently. I bought a big bag of salt and vinegar potato chips, finishing them in two days. I got up on Monday, hoping I wouldn't have to make many big decisions that week.
I remember the day I introduced an assessment to a team member. They told me it was like astrology for business and not useful. I remember my face flushing, my stomach twisting. Seeking to understand, I asked them to share more of their perspective as I breathed slowly. I thought about how to navigate away from conflict and towards a meaningful conversation. An hour later, they thanked me for the time, telling me it was helpful. I exhaled deeply as I closed the Zoom chat, grateful for a productive conversation.
I remember realizing how much power I had compared to others. This was my first senior leadership position. I wasn't accustomed to having a say, still working to acclimate to my newfound autonomy. I reflected on how much I talked, tried to listen more than I opened my mouth. I worked hard to make decisions as a collaboratively as possible. I kept my calendar open to ensure the team had time to express their opinions about the direction of a project or the company at large.
I remember feeling happiest working with others to build something useful.
I remember not checking email and only taking one call while on my honeymoon. I was proud I'd actually taken two weeks away from work. I came back fresh and ready to re-engage. Never good at taking time away, I vowed to do it more regularly.
I remember that feeling of pride when the next year I took five weeks in Asia traversing rice terraces, sailing on a sea dotted with limestone islands and spending a day in the company of elephants.
I remember how much stress I held in my body the week after my last day at the company. My body spent the next four months unwinding itself, finding equilibrium again through pilates, long walks, traveling just for fun and long talks over tapas with a dear friend.
I remember wondering what I'd learned during my time as a COO. Then I started coaching new leaders. Their challenges felt familiar, I remembered how hard it felt at the time. Looking back, I could see how I grew in my confidence, grew in my understanding of leading others, grew in my relationship with myself.
I remember a year after I left my role feeling glad I'd said yes to the hardest challenge of my life. It made me ready for more adventures.
What else to read
What it’s like to be Slack’s CEO in a pandemic.
The story of the founder trying to make jetpacks a reality.
The ReadMe of Gitlab’s Head of Remote.
There’s so much written about leadership that I’m looking for new ways to talk about it, including new formats. The structure of this week’s post was inspired by Joe Brainard’s book I Remember. Here’s some background and an excerpt.
I'd love to hear what you think about this format or what you thought about the content or structure of this week’s post.
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.