Adam Hale: A letter to my younger CEO self

1st June 2020 by Frog

Adam Hale became Executive Chairman of HR SaaS business Fairsail in October 2013 then CEO in March 2014. In 4 years he scaled the company up from 13 people and £700k ARR to 200 people and £12m ARR. Fairsail won many awards for growth and industry leadership and expanded from 30 customers to 300. In May 2016, Sage Group invested £10m and acquired the whole business in March 2017 for £115m cash, 23x the £5m valuation in October 2013. 

Adam is now Chairman of the ScaleUp Institute as well as Chairman/board member/investor of Unit4, e-days, ScaleUp Group & many other software businesses. 

Before becoming CEO Adam spent 26 years in Professional Services, this letter is written to him in early 2013 towards the end of that period. Adam had just become a non-executive board member of Fairsail, but had no idea he would later be asked to step in and run it.   

Dear Adam,

You are not a CEO. Yet.

You are 48, have a great job, a wonderful family and life is pretty good. But…

You are becoming frustrated, there are fewer working years ahead of you than behind you and you are worried about retiring unfulfilled. You want to do something else but aren’t sure what it is and if anyone will give you the chance.

You have always had two primary areas of focus in your career: People and Technology. You taught yourself to code on a ZX81/BBC Micro as a teenager in Stockport before studying Computer Science. When you told anyone what you studied they almost always said “Oh no, I am sorry”. You did it because you loved it, turned out it wasn’t such a crazy idea.

Since then you have spent 26 years as a consultant and advisor working for just 2 firms, 10 years with Accenture delivering large-scale systems for clients, then 16 years as a head-hunter with Russell Reynolds Associates, where you are now, building leadership teams for software businesses. You have heard countless times that you are a decent advisor but that ‘you haven’t run anything’ and ‘there isn’t life after executive search’.

So here’s my advice. Resign. Like, now. It’s not fair on your clients, colleagues, family or you to stay in a role you are no longer excited about. Wrap things up nicely: finish projects; introduce colleagues to clients, have a party and walk out the front door. You are regarded as ‘part of the furniture’ at Russell Reynolds, while you are there no-one is going to even think about you for anything else.

The non-executive board position you’ve just started will turn into a rollercoaster beyond your wildest dreams, follow that lead, and don’t forget these things along the way:

Do things right

Your focus on quality will always be critical to your success. You learnt a long time ago ‘if there is time to fix it when it goes wrong, there’s time to do it right first time’.  Doing OK has never been enough, you have always wanted to set new standards of achievement. You have found a way to be successful in the things you have done so far, keep believing in ‘Proof by Induction’.

Focus on client & customer success

You have spent your entire career understanding your customers’ business and finding a way to make it better. You have never just focused on the task at hand but always looked for other ways to help and to become a Trusted Adviser. You have spent the last 20 years sitting in literally hundreds of board rooms across the world, that experience has taught you how to interact and partner with all kinds of firms. If you help customers to be successful your company will do fine.

It’s not what you know it’s who you know

Ok so it’s a cliché, doesn’t mean there’s no truth in it. You have a unique personal network of CEOs, CFOs, Chief People officers across the Technology world. You also know many investors in VC/ Growth Capital/ PE who are looking for new investments both growth & angel. Surely these will come in handy?!

Have confidence

You have worked closely with 200 different software businesses and seen what makes them successful, you know their leaders and can ask them for help. You have been responsible for Sales, Marketing, Professional Services, Engineering, Operations and People. Just not at the same time.

Make decisions

Remember that time that a CEO told you “A CEO has to make an order of magnitude more decisions than other roles.  It’s better to make a decision with the data you have than to avoid the decision”? I know you do. Well, they were right. You haven’t been a CEO, but you know many of them and understand how they think. Don’t faff about.

Leave a legacy

You have always helped to put in place frameworks and approaches that were used even after you left, like the Search process at Russell Reynolds you wrote in your first year there. Whatever you do, go into it thinking you can set some new standards and develop a framework and approach that others can learn from. Write the book.

It’s all about the team

Ok, I deliberately put this last to mess with you. It is, and always has been all about the people, both personally and in business. Great companies are made up of great people. If you don’t know how to build a great team, culture and values by now then, honestly, you haven’t been paying attention. Build the best team and make it the highlight of each person’s career. Do some new things, make an impact, have some fun.

If you don’t resign then I didn’t write this letter. Just like Back to the Future. I did, so you must have done. Get on with it.

Adam

Frog

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