My Initial 12 Months as a First-Time CEO

Thankyou Payroll’s David Morrison, shares his reflection on being a first-time CEO, and how he has incorporated his authentic, people-focused leadership style into the role – creating an environment for everyone to thrive in.

First-time CEO, David Morrison, on a surf ski in Wellington Harbour

Reflecting on the time so far

As I reach the end of my first 12 months as a CEO at Thankyou Payroll, I have been reflecting a lot on how the past year has gone. Did I achieve what I intended, and how did my expectations of the role measure up to reality?  I was thinking of doing a report style writeup of what went well, what did not and what we achieved.  But that felt a bit lightweight and would not go deep enough to touch on the hard stuff. So here goes…

Prior to starting in my role last year, I shaped up a plan for how I wanted to ‘be’ as a CEO and the areas I thought would need my attention.  I read up on lots of articles about what sets successful CEOs apart.  Much of what I read was very academic and action-oriented but it missed some of the big questions for me:

  • How would I feel in the role?  How would I deal with these feelings?
  • What support networks would I need?
  • How would I support my well-being and stay healthy and focused?

Naturally, I had expectations of what I thought it would be like to be a CEO. I knew it would be a role that would allow me to exercise my experience gathered from a range of leadership roles and industries.  Transitioning from a larger and older organisation, I also knew there was a lot I could contribute to help prepare the organisation for its next decade of growth. Starting at the same time as our new leadership team of four (three who were new to the organisation), there would be work to shape and settle as a leadership team into the organisation.  Collectively, we planned to just “be” in the business and take time to understand the operations, the challenges and how our teams worked.  All in all, I anticipated my focus would need to be on structures, performance, numbers, policies, processes and people; and while this was true, the reality was much deeper.

The reality for me is that the role of CEO is more one of mindset than it is of skills. The role is one of accountability and “where the buck stops” and it took some time to get used to this. Being surrounded by highly skilled, knowledgeable people,  I came to realise quite quickly that my success would not be a result of “busy work” but creating an environment to allow everyone to reach their full potential in the business.

The Leadership Team and I joined Thankyou Payroll at the end of a long change process.  Current staff had grown weary of change and were nervous about the prospect of more. Communication and transparency were key to bring everyone on our journey.  The team also had lots to share about what they wanted Thankyou Payroll to be and it was essential that we listened to and incorporated these views.

Going into this role, I tried not to baseline my approach against those who had led before, but instead to lead in a way that was natural to me, and adaptive to those around me.  My approach focuses heavily on the wellbeing of our team and respecting their commitment to Thankyou Payroll.  While there is much to work on in the business (and there always will be!), this work isn’t possible without a supported, well-motivated team.

What did I learn?

Some key lessons I learnt through these 12 months:

  • A key role of a CEO is developing and nurturing relationships with everyone – staff, board, shareholders and customers. It is essential and necessary to truly understand how people are feeling individually, and working together.
  • Space is important.  While I still don’t have it perfected, my best ideas, and moments of clarity and creativity, have come when I created space and time to rest my mind.
  • While space is important, it is easy to feel lonely as a CEO and to get lost in your thoughts. I have found that developing a network of trusted individuals and mentors is essential to working through complex issues.
  • I learnt that I don’t need to change who I am to be a successful CEO. I can still lead with generosity and kindness and shape an environment that prioritises team wellbeing.
  • COVID-19 was, and is, a continual disruption. Rather than put in place temporary measures until “things return to normal” (hint: they won’t!), I have accepted that our current state is our normal and we need to adjust our mindsets and practices to embrace this.  We have adapted well to hybrid working.  This will likely stay as our new normal with ongoing tweaks and improvements as we learn what works best for us.
  • You can run a successful commercial business AND deliver public good as a purpose-led organisation.  So the question arises – why don’t we all strive to “pay it forward” in meaningful, impactful ways?  This is something you can expect me to share more thoughts on in the future as we explore our journey to be a better business.
  • Finally, I learnt that if we put our staff and our customers first, everything else falls into place.  We have made significant changes to how we nurture the well-being of our team. As a result I am thrilled with the commitment and energy our team brings to our work in serving over 7,000 organisations with their payroll needs.

Looking forward

I am excited for the opportunity to further mature our organisation.  We are preparing to grow in sustainable ways that deliver not only commercial growth but deepen our commitment and impact as a purpose-led organisation. Keep an eye out for future posts on this journey.

A key tool we have been utilising at Thankyou Payroll is the Emotional Culture Deck.  It is a useful to explore how we feel and want to feel as key drivers to shaping our behaviour.  On a personal level as I look forward, I have been reflecting on how I want to feel as a CEO and what actions I should take to enable and support these feelings. The following are how I envision feeling when I am successful in my role.

My success relies on me feeling:

  • Curious  – I wish to nurture a relentless curiosity about our business and our people.  We should not take things for granted and there are always things to improve and work on.
  • Restless – I don’t want to feel too comfortable and rest on our laurels.  We are a successful operation delivering tangible impact but we have potential to do so much more.  I need to be mindful to ensure that restlessness does not drift into impatience.
  • Attentive – I need to be attentive to our people, our customers and all the moving parts of the business – both internal and external. This requires space and time to explore in an unhurried way.
  • Brave – I must be prepared to lead even when feeling uncertain or uncomfortable. I won’t always have the answers and at times may need to make decisions in imperfect circumstances without all the information I might need.
  • Kind – a core value of mine and something I refuse to lose sight of even in difficult times is kindness.  I also wholeheartedly believe that kindness and business success are not mutually exclusive.  We can care about each other, the planet and our business – all at the same time.

To finish, I thought I would share a checklist for first-time CEOs – something that might have helped me…

My checklist for first-time CEOs

  • It is all about the people. Put people first, take the time to get to know them and what they need to be successful.  This equally applies to staff, your board and your customers.
  • Create space and time – space to think, time to respond, space to create.
  • Surround yourself with good people and give them the agency and autonomy to get on with the work.
  • Develop and nurture relationships at all levels. Take time to focus on people, get to know them, nurture mutually beneficial relationships.   It is not always necessary to have an agenda or seek an immediate return on the time spent.  There is a lot to be gained in giving your time where it can be useful.
  • Stay in touch with your feelings.  This is not “fluffy” stuff but essential to understanding how you are reacting or responding to your environment and identifying helpful and unhelpful behaviours.
  • Don’t be afraid to make decisions.  Value momentum over perfection.

There is a lot to be grateful for and with an amazing team we have achieved a lot this past year. Until next time, and remember, good things happen when we payroll together!

First-time CEO and CEO of Thankyou Payroll, David Morrison

David Morrison, CEO of Thankyou Payroll