Life of a CEO: Knife-in-the-Back to Epiphany

My “knife-in-the-back” experience had a positive side in that it led me to experience an epiphany. Congrats, you say – so what?

I agree, so what, people experience their epiphany every day. Wikipedia says an epiphany (from the ancient Greek epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance”) is an experience of a sudden and striking realization.

To have an epiphany is common, not exceptional. You all know this and you all know it can apply to any facet of your life.

We experience these striking realizations when obfuscation by the universe conveniently clears and you see a pathway open up with pristine clarity. A clarity that could engender exhilaration to agony.

This story of my epiphany was related to career or at least the rest of my career. Wikipedia says “career is a person’s course or progress through life”. Although it’s arguable I don’t have a career as such any longer. I have to fess-up and declare that I’m 63.

Prior to my career epiphany, I had been CEO of a startup for 2+ years, starting when it was a concept and taking it to production in Azure and securing revenue from a couple of marquee customers.

I was pretty happy with the progress, although progress is rarely as fast as shareholders want.

Those 2 years were full speed and some. You know what it’s like when you start at the start – you’re working with the outline of an idea and you have to confirm product/market fit, raise capital, build the thing and then sell it.

Actually, it’s fun, in a way that people who haven’t done a startup might not appreciate.

Anyway, I’m 2 years plus in and suddenly the vibe changes. When you’ve been around for a while you get to be alert to what might otherwise seem like very subtle, even imperceptible changes.

The New Guy

The subtle changes started when the shareholders introduced me to this new guy they felt could really assist with the rate of progress. It didn’t take long for the new guy to start convening meetings (not always with me present), giving presentations, suggesting strategies and sharing his thoughts on the new business model he felt was essential for growth. Now the red lights were flashing.

At a Board meeting where I wasn’t advised the new guy would be presenting, I got to hear about his brilliant new strategy for the business. A full 57 slides of unrelenting banality.

So, now it’s clear. The “new guy” will be replacing me as CEO. This is classic “knife in the back” (KITB) stuff. It’s also typically the work of cowards. A collusion of cowards spruiking falsehoods.

Ironically the KITB is actually a kind of twisted backhanded compliment – a test to see if you’re perceptive enough to know what’s happening. If you figure it out then you’re actually politically adept, if not, well you’re clearly a loser.

I thought there’s no way I’ll lie down for this, particularly as I had formed the view that this “new guy” was totally out of his depth and knew next to nothing about the realities of life in a SaaS startup.

So, here we all are in the “strategy meeting” and the new guy is explaining his brilliant new vision, except his brilliant vision could be likened to a large bucket of caca.

I thought, “Are these Directors really swallowing this crap and believing the polyana picture pitched by the new guy?”.

Oh fuck. They really are. They’ve taken his bait – hook, line and sinker.

Seeing a Golden Opportunity

So in the course of about 2 weeks the scene has gone from me confronting shareholders to ask whether the new guy is, in fact, my replacement, which initially received a resounding “oh no Greg, we value you far too much to do that”, to a couple of weeks later “well, we feel it’s for the best and thought you could move to more of a part-time administrative role”.

Now, in case you may be thinking that I would ride off quietly into the sunset, I can assure the reader I didn’t. Given I’d experienced the pain of a KITB, I thought it only fair that I too should reciprocate and inflict pain.

Having been headhunted away from my previous CEO role, where I was happy, with a great team and a supportive Board, I had formed a view that the very least they could do was fully pay out my contract, rather than just give the minimum notice period of 3 months. After all, there was a clear moral obligation in my view. They’d headhunted me, so they were morally obligated to do the right thing, particularly after the KITB way they executed the change of CEO.

The conclusion of this sorry saga came with a confirmation by the key investor that they’d agreed to my request, although agreement came with a couple of caveats, which I thought were fine. By this time I just wanted to be out of the team, from which I had been unceremoniously benched.

I began to feel that this just might be a golden opportunity. A clean break, fresh air, new perspectives.

And a decision to fly away for a total change of scenery for about six weeks turned out in hindsight to be pure brilliance.

There’s no doubt been many people who’ve written about the cathartic release that overseas travel can initiate. In my case landing in Vienna in the early part of summer and then heading to southern Austria, on to Slovenia and ending up on the Croatian coast really did the trick.

If I’d have stayed in Sydney it’s quite possible my epiphany may not have exploded into my consciousness the way it did when I was sitting at a bar overlooking the Adriatic Sea.

That obfuscation by the universe I mentioned previously, dissipated sublimely as I was finishing my third margarita, watching the sunset lingeringly on a balmy Balkan evening.

Making a Real Change

That bar, that blissful evening, those scrumptious margaritas ended up being a potent recipe that sponsored a realization that I’d been gifted a wonderful and once-off opportunity to make a change for the better.

No longer would I pitch my talents to a group of investors who were seeking a CEO they could slaughter at their whim.

My vision at the Croatian bar was that I could help so many people in my community to crystalize their hopes for a future that they design and control. So many people in my community harbor dreams about creating and owning their future and I was the person who could set them up for success.

I saw with total clarity that my 63 years of experience actually had tremendous value to people who needed guidance and support for their entrepreneurial journey. And of course, there are so many ways to plan your journey, so many motivations and countless options.

Since that epiphanous moment in Croatia, I’ve taken many steps towards realizing my vision. When people ask me about the countless questions I know I must eventually answer, I say, “I know I don’t have all the answers today, I don’t even know all the questions today. I focus on taking a step forward each and every day, just like the Chinese proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

I like to think of the entrepreneurs I help as heroes and that they are on a heroic journey. The classical myth of the hero, setting forth from her known world to venture into the unknown world where she’ll slay the beast and return to her world as a hero.

I’m with her on that journey, helping her realize the heroes dream.

In the few months since the evening at the Croation bar, I’ve formed a not-for-profit called SEVENmile Venture Lab in my hometown of Manly, a harbor/seaside village that’s about a 20-minute ferry ride from Sydney.

I now have two co-founders who share my vision and together we’ve created a sizable wave of support. I can’t call it a tsunami just yet. Our community has embraced my vision to bring social and economic resilience to the regions we serve by educating and up-skilling people with a focus on the creation of new enterprises by women and men who want or need to design their future, young adults (16-25 years), migrants and the over 50s.

I’ve secured premises from our local Council and sponsors are circling as the word spreads that SEVENmile was devised around social resilience, diversity and inclusion.

When I tell the story of how I came to start SEVENmile Venture Lab, people lean forward and engage with excitement. That’s a very cool reward in itself, sensing that my humble vision can actually influence such a strong reaction.

SEVENmile will encourage and guide entrepreneurs of all ages and backgrounds to venture into unknown territory, just like I’m doing with SEVENmile.

There’s more information here for anyone who feels inspired to emulate the mission of SEVENmile: