Having My COO Constantly Challenge Me Makes Me a Better CEO

Many folks who know me know my close friend, partner in crime (OK, technically she’s my attorney), and COO, Ms. Sarah Bird. Sarah’s been with Moz since 2007, just after our first funding round with Ignition & Curious Office closed, and in that time, has been as responsible as any single individual for the company’s growth and success.

(yes, she’s gorgeous, mom to a 7-month old, and the most remarkable operator I’ve ever met)

A huge part of her value comes from an exceptionally low power distance between us, thanks in part to a long personal relationship as well as a natural predilection for challenging authority and preconceptions. The desire to optimize and the ability to make you defend your position in any conversation makes her an exceptional COO and it what makes me a better CEO.

Every Monday, we have a lunch with the executive team members to discuss important issues, how teams are doing, and plans for the weeks/months ahead. Today, we went to a nearby French bistro and talked about the team structure plan I laid out last week. Jamie, Anthony and I were all on relatively the same page (Adam’s out on vacation), but Sarah challenged all of us to think more creatively, to express the “whys” behind our positions, and to have a nearly-90-minute dialogue that didn’t produce a conclusion yet still feel good about the process.

In negotiations on everything from new hires to salaries to office space to team dynamics to expenses, Sarah’s questioned my thinking and forced me to be more thoughtful in every way. I find myself being more open-minded, less sure of my opinions, and, perhaps most important, more evidence and data-driven that I’ve been in the past.

When making big and small decisions as a CEO, it’s very easy, especially as your company achieves some modicum of success, to begin to believe you’re good at this. You start to think, “hey, I’ve got a knack for this whole company-building thing, so I should make more decisions like I have in the past.” That’s a dangerous road to go down. I’ve often told my team that the minute I think I’m great at my job is the minute they need to start looking for a replacement. It signals a lack of awareness and a potential unwillingness to be challenged.

What Sarah brings, specifically, is a particularly rare and excellent way of asking “why.” She draws on past experiences and applies them to the matter at hand. She leverages examples from other companies and industries to build support for and/or arguments against particular solutions. And, as perhaps her most exceptional trait, she has no ego. This means she can argue passionately, win or lose, and never build a scoreboard in her mind to be referenced at future discussions as a reason we shouldn’t “go with your opinion.” That no-ego form of healthy conflict is remarkably powerful.

I don’t write this to praise Sarah – she knows my opinions on that matter. Instead, I write it because I worry that many other CEOs don’t have a partner in their business who does the same.

This might be the best advice I have for other CEOs – startup or no, social media obsessed or wholly in-the-trenches. Find a partner who challenges your thinking, questions your decisions, and does it without keeping score. It might be hard to acclimate to, but it will be worthwhile, and it will make you better at your job.