My Complicated Relationship with No Longer Being CEO

It’s been 22 months since I stepped down as the CEO of Moz and turned over the role to my longtime Chief Operating Officer and close friend, Sarah Bird. Since then I’ve recovered from depression, traveled to and keynoted dozens of events, started (and now nearly completed) a new product with a small team at Moz, and kept up my usual tasks – Whiteboard Friday, blogging, SEO experiments, chairing Moz’s board of directors, evangelizing TAGFEE, feminism, and diversity, and being the best husband I can to Geraldine.

Waiting backstage before my closing talk at Mozcon Seattle, July 2015  |  (photo credit to Rudy Lopez)

When I stepped down, I changed my title to “Individual Contributor,” an homage to the dual-track system we established at Moz that I so strongly believe in. I only have a single direct report these days, Nicci, my amazing executive admin. The rest of my contributions are as an advisor, evangelist, content creator, board member, and product designer for our Big Data and Research Tools teams (not the UX/UI kind, but the strategic “this is what we’re gonna build and why” kind).

In many ways, it’s a dream job. I’m well paid. I have great benefits. I’m challenged. I work with people I like on projects about which I’m passionate, and most importantly, I get to help people do better marketing…. But it is an immense shift from being CEO. That’s what I want to write about and share today – the difference.

There are two sides to my relationship with the CEO role, and I think I can best sum it up in an oft-repeated exchange I’ve had the last year:

Them: “So, how do you like not being CEO anymore?”
Me: “A lot of it is great – less pressure, fewer meetings, less dealing with people problems, and more doing the work I love.”
Them: “If you had it to do over, would you step down again?”
Me: “I don’t think so. It’s something I regret.”
Them: “Wait… But you just said…”
Me: “I know. It’s complicated.”

There are a great number of things I love about not being CEO. Almost all of it fits under the auspices of freedom. I’m (mostly) free to do the things I believe I’m best at, and to let other folks handle things at which I struggle and don’t have passion for. I’m also deeply thankful to Sarah, who I think has done a great job through an extremely difficult time leading the company and getting us back to growth after my missteps in 2013.

Sarah at Mozcon Ignite (on the stage at Benaroya Hall) in Seattle, July 2015
Sarah at Mozcon Ignite (on stage at Benaroya Hall) in Seattle, July 2015

On the flipside, there are four big reasons I feel regret and frustration over the change in my role:

  1. The catalyst for stepping down was my mental and emotional condition. I regret being unwell and feel anger and resentment at myself for having that weakness (even though I know it’s something I may have been unable to control). I frequently wonder whether my illness sparked the problems at Moz or if causality goes the other way.
  2. As CEO, I was perceived to be responsible for the successes, failures, and decisions of the company, and indeed, I had the direct ability to influence those things. As an ex-CEO and founder who’s still actively with the company, those perceptions (both internal and external) haven’t faded much (especially in the web marketing community). I’m still often on the receiving end of that perceived responsibility (certainly from myself, but plenty from folks around the marketing, tech, and startup worlds), but my ability to influence and make decisions is massively diminished. Being perceived as accountable for things that feel outside my control is a deeply frustrating experience.
  3. I feel tremendous guilt for putting Sarah and all of Moz in the frustrating position it was left in following my last 6 months as CEO. I’ve documented those mistakes in the past, so won’t rehash them here, but I’ve been unable to forgive myself for the foolish, avoidable lapses in judgement and execution. I have to keep listening to this story in my head for a while longer, and I’m scared that, if Moz doesn’t reach its potential, I’ll be listening to it for the rest of my life.
  4. My poor decision-making at the end of my CEO tenure created a legacy that’s stuck around and (probably deservedly) hurt my influence at the company. It’s no fun knowing that some of your co-workers think you’ve done a bad job and are less likely to trust your input or advice in the future. For me, that’s how a fair number of interactions feel, and I have had very direct conversations with Sarah about this. I tremendously appreciate her candor (and those of my other colleagues who’ve been straightforward about this issue), but it only makes me regret the past and wish for the ability to change it more.

That said, I think these last (almost) 2 years have been an incredible opportunity for me to learn what it’s like to be an employee and to live on the other side of the management/individual contributor ecosystem.

Most folks assume that despite no longer being CEO, my position on Moz’s board of directors, on our executive team, and as a founder mean that I still have a tremendous amount of influence over Moz’s day-to-day and high-level strategic decisions. But, by and large, that’s not accurate. My influence on most things Moz, with a few exceptions, is limited to being a single voice in a crowd of many.

One of the most impressive things about Sarah taking on the CEO title was her total embracing of the role’s duties and abilities. She quickly shifted how we planned projects, how we prioritized products and quarterly cycles, how we determined who would work on what, how we measured progress and engagement, and Moz’s organizational structure. She shifted who reported to her (and how). She formalized many informal processes and moved fast to make Moz emulate some of the larger companies in Foundry Group’s portfolio like ReturnPath and Rally (after building relationships with those CEOs and teams). And, she changed a lot of how Moz’s power structure worked – from a centralized source when I was CEO (basically, a 5-6 person executive team that made/approved a majority of the company’s high-level decisions) to a much more distributed, cascading set of responsibilities by product and department.

I was skeptical about a good portion of these changes. And, while I worked to keep my disagreement just between us, I’m sure at least some signs of my displeasure and frustration spilled over to the team. I dislike formalized processes, rigidity, and anything that feels overly corporate or hierarchical.

Taken from 'Flat Will Kill You, Eventually: Why Every Company Needs Structure' by Mark Nichols, Nov. 18, 2015
Taken from Flat Will Kill You, Eventually: Why Every Company Needs Structure by Mark Nichols, Nov. 18, 2015

I think, to be frank, I was also deeply selfish. I wanted Moz to be the kind of place I wanted to work, not the kind of place most likely to succeed with the team we had or were hiring, not the kind that fit best with what Sarah wanted, but my own little creation where things were weird and different and Rand-like.

I sometimes sit in meetings that feel, to me, insanely frustrating and pointless, corporate and inauthentic, and think “This isn’t what I wanted… Why did I create this?… Me of 5 years ago would hate the me of today.” That self-centered attitude is awful, but sometimes, I can barely hold those thoughts back, and have to leave a room to avoid breaking down. It feels like there’s a bull in my head, filled with self-loathing, rushing into the all-too-vulnerable walls I’ve erected to keep it chained in.

Via Chris Guyot on Dribbble

It takes concerted effort to remind myself that just because I’m unhappy about a process or don’t see the value in it doesn’t mean that’s true for others. And I cannot argue with the results. Moz’s teams work together better now, at nearly 200 employees, than at any time since we were a company of <50 people. Morale feels to me as though it’s stronger than ever. Cross-team initiaves and the pace of software releases are at an all-time high. Errors, downtime, and broken systems still plague us badly, but recovery times are way better than they’ve ever been, and processes for identifying and fixing these is dialed in.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a harsh critic of Moz, as I am of myself. The things I hate most in myself are often reflected to me in Moz’s own stumbles over the years. I perceive those flaws as magnified, and conversely see our good qualities as never good enough. Yet, even I can admit that we are a better company today that at any time in my last 2 years of CEO-ship.

The greatest gift of this period, though, has been exposure to the experience of being an employee, and the empathy that brings with it. I’ve:

  • Felt the fear of worrying about getting fired, stressing about our finances (irresponsibly, I have barely one year’s salary in savings), and wondering if I could ever find another job that would want me knowing what an awkward liability I might be.
  • Had conversations with co-workers as a co-worker, not a CEO. Those have been incredible – enlightening, sometimes reinforcing things I believed but couldn’t prove and other times wholly negating my assumptions.
  • Experienced the deep frustration of disagreeing about big, important decisions, having no power to change them, and settling into the role of supporting them despite my reservations.
  • Spent hours doing work I hate (which is nothing new – as CEO I did plenty of I hated) and whose purpose I can’t understand (that has been entirely new).
  • Worked with people I thought were wrong fits for their teams and the company, and been told to suck it up because they weren’t going anywhere.

Having never worked anywhere else in my adult life (apart from a couple retail jobs in college), these new professional experiences have, I think, made me a better future CEO, and a better person all-around. It’s hard to have real empathy for something you haven’t personally gone through and until the last 22 months, I’d never worked directly for someone in a formal setting like Moz with a real risk of losing my job if I didn’t do what was required of me.

Let me be clear – Moz is a WAY, WAY less corporate, inauthentic, frustrating place to work than anywhere else I’ve ever heard about among tech companies our size. My friends from other mid-late stage startups laugh at my complaints, as well they should, and most Mozzers just tell me how lucky we all have it compared to what’s out there. As a consultant for the first 8 years of my career, I agree that there’s nothing like the bureaucracy, politics, or throwaway work I saw at larger companies inside Moz… I’m just extremely, overly sensitive to even a hint of going in that direction, and when I feel us tilting that way, I go a little crazy.

But in my saner moments, I know that my sensitivity is, in part, a reaction to the guilt and shame I feel from the past, along with a pride I take in wanting Moz to be somewhere different, somewhere amazing, and somewhere that reflects my peculiar values. My best self – the version that can be reflective and patient – knows that Sarah is building Moz to be what she wants, and that’s what good CEOs are supposed to do. My job is to support her, to see her vision through, and to get out of the way when I can’t be a positive force in that trajectory. I think anyone inside or outside the company can easily see how much better off we are today than we were two years ago – for that, I’m immensely proud of and thankful for Sarah’s great work.

Rand and Si at a tiny farmer’s market in Flemington, NJ, August 2015

The picture above is of me and my grandfather, Seymour (Si) Fishkin. In the first 4 years of the old SEOmoz blog, he was a major contributor to the company – helping me learn how to read patent applications, how to understand the math of Google’s PageRank algorithm, how to explain the principles of information retrieval systems, and how to be a good person. I remember one night, while I was staying over at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey, he read a blog post I’d written about a debate in the SEO world.

He was slow to give me feedback, but when he did, it was critical. My grandfather felt that instead of explaining my argument, I was writing as though I had some innate authority and that readers were to believe my position simply because I was the one expressing it. He explained that with a few tweaks and a bit more work to justify the reasons for my perspective, the post could go from haughty and overbearing to humble and helpful. I changed that post, and I’ve been trying to keep his advice in mind ever since – to show people my work and my reasons rather than just tell them to believe me. I think that approach has been a big part of Moz’s success over the years.

It’s also how I’m trying to think of this opportunity – a chance to be a more humble contributor to Moz, to learn from my mistakes and hopefully, earn back the trust and respect of the team around me and of the customers I disappointed. Someday, (hopefully many years from now after Moz’s stock has become shockingly valuable) I want to start another company. When I do, I think I’ll be able to apply the lessons learned and empathy gained from this experience to that one. So, while I’m deeply regretful of the past and resentful of my actions, I’m also thankful for this chance to learn and grow.

Ultimately, I’m not regretful about no longer being CEO; I’m upset and sad about why the transition happened, and about how poorly I prepared myself for the change. But today, I have a great job, a great CEO, and a chance to learn. Like I said, it’s complicated.