Wolfgang Koester, CEO & Co-founder, FiREapps
It has been my experience that the most important factor in a CEO’s success is whether he or she is willing and able to get down in the trenches with employees. Like the coach who is still out on the field with the team. There is an adage that great leaders don’t ask others to do things they are not willing to do themselves. Great CEOs don’t lead from the sidelines; they are still in the game.
Over two decades as a CEO, including at FiREapps, a company I co-founded in 2000, I have found that ‘being the coach who still plays’ ultimately comes down to three fundamentals:
1. Develop a clear value system, and live it
When Corey Edens and I founded FiREapps, I was fortunate to have had experience running a company. As a result, I knew the importance of developing a value system from day 1 and that system has defined the culture of FiREapps since.
Every day since that first one, we have worked hard to consistently reinforce the value system. As a CEO, that means living it myself.
A true value system is both internal and external. Just as we consider value alignment when we’re hiring an employee, we consider it when we’re talking with a prospective customer. We have turned down customers who didn’t fit our value system (I can’t imagine a more powerful testament to the concept of living your value system than that). As a result, the customers we do have really love being our customers, and we really love working with them.
2. Be positive
I go into even the toughest conversations with the attitude that they should end positively. Leaving on a negative note is rarely productive. When I go into the meeting wanting it to end positively, everything I act, do, and say will be geared toward that constructive outcome.
A positive attitude has been a tremendous asset as an employer, and that carries through to conversations with our customers. By nature, we end up in strenuous conversations where it is our job to suggest ways our customers can improve their current process for managing the impact of currencies. By maintaining a focus on constructive outcomes, our customers better understand the intention behind our suggestions and, I believe, are more receptive to them.
3. Know the problem you’re aiming to solve
The best leaders in business, sports, military – anywhere – are those who understand the game, not because they have studied it, but because they have played it. Likewise, the most successful companies are those that are built around a solution to a problem that the founders suffered with themselves. That was the case for Corey and me.
We didn’t set out to build a technology company. Corey had a long history as CFO, controller, and auditor, including controller at Microsoft Network and auditor at Deloitte. I had worked for several decades in corporate FX and run a quantitative currency management company. We both had seen companies losing money because they didn’t have visibility into how they were exposed to foreign currencies; their systems simply weren’t built to identify transaction-level currency exposure.
For a short time, we solved this problem by hand for a small set of companies. Then, when we realized that we had a solution to a problem that every multinational company was struggling with, we looked for a way to get it to as many of them as possible. At the time, we were running the company in a relatively high-touch, high-cost engagement model, preventing us from delivering this solution to thousands of customers. We wanted to help more companies eliminate currency surprises.
After we understood intimately what the problem was and how it could be solved for our customers, we considered a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) delivery model. And the switch to a SaaS model allowed us to deliver speed to value with minimal IT investment.
It is by living our value system, hiring for attitude and desire, being positive, and understanding intimately the problem we solve that I work hard every day to stay in the game with my team. I do it because I know that expectations trickle down. I expect of myself all the things I expect of my team, and because I hold myself to those high expectations, the FiREapps team does too. And that, I have found, is the number one key to our success.
About the Author
Wolfgang Koester is the CEO and co-founder of FiREapps, a provider of cloud-based currency analytics for corporate finance.