Sarah Avenir (00:00):
I think that there's always a pendulum swing from when we're in this sort of mode of really trusting our gut and just going with what feels right and throwing ourselves fully into this big vision, which may or may not be sustainable and then the other side of cultivating those systems and really being thoughtful.
Susan Boles (00:27):
Visionary or integrator, startup or maintenance CEO. In the world of business, there is no shortage of ways to categorize your leadership style and the way you operate, but maybe in the real world, it's not quite so distinct. I'm Susan Boles and you're listening to Break the Ceiling, the show where we break down unconventional strategies you can use to save time, boost your profit and increase your operational capacity.
Susan Boles (00:56):
I love quizzes and personality tests and different ways of categorizing my personality, my skills, how I think about things. Some have been really helpful in helping me think about how and why I approach things. Knowing that I'm an Enneagram 3 helped me understand how I tend to tie my worth to my achievements and why I do that. Understanding my CliftonStrengths helped me organize my days and my weeks so that I have plenty of time for reflection and integration.
Susan Boles (01:28):
Knowing that I'm a human design projector helps me understand why my energy tanks when I'm around too many people for too long. Sometimes these assessments are genuinely helpful and help us understand how and why we do the things we do and think the way we think, which can help us improve our weaknesses and lean into our strengths. But sometimes they can also create artificial boxes around us and create limitations that can keep us from growing as leaders and as individuals.
Susan Boles (01:58):
One of these dichotomies that I've repeatedly gotten stuck on personally is the idea that you are either a startup or a maintenance CEO. You're either the energetic new kid here to wipe everyone into a frenzy of work who changes things at the drop of a hat, or you're the "adult" they bring in once things are rolling so you can bring order to the chaos. So think Sheryl Sandberg, when she came into Facebook to keep Mark Zuckerberg under control. They literally called her the adult in the room.
Susan Boles (02:30):
As we've been talking about maintenance mode, it seemed like a logical choice to examine whether or not all business owners can even be in maintenance mode. What if you are either a startup CEO or a maintenance one, does that mean your business will never be able to operate like clockwork? My guest today is Sarah Avenir. She's an author and the CEO of &yet, a marketing and messaging agency and she's been on both sides of this debate.
Susan Boles (02:57):
She's been a startup, a freelancer, an employee, and then she got tapped to become the CEO of &yet, and she had to figure out how to make a team of designers and developers and strategists come together under what she calls systems of practice. So in the startup world, we kind of get presented with this idea that you are either a startup CEO or a maintenance CEO, that there is one type of person that's suited to be at the helm of a startup, but once that startup gets traction, it's time to bring in the adult to run things. So what is your take on that? Do you identify more with one or the other? Is it really a dichotomy? What do you think?
Sarah Avenir (03:39):
Well, I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because I'm working on a chapter about systems in a book that I'm writing. For me, I think I was born more the startup type. I am naturally just go in the direction of my enthusiasm and I pour myself wholeheartedly into what I'm doing and I love the grand vision and all of that, but it hasn't been a super healthy approach for me in doing that.
Sarah Avenir (04:11):
I've just realized as I've gotten older, as I've run different businesses and things like that, how important healthy systems really are. So when I took on the CEO role at &yet I'm coming up on two years ago now, I realized that I wanted to start building what I'm thinking of as like systems of practice for myself and for our team that are more healthy, even if they aren't my inclination to do things that way. I think just having hit my own capacity levels and realizing I can't continue to be that like fire starter spark person anymore because I just can't make myself do it that I have to learn other ways of being and other ways of leading, which are ultimately healthier, but maybe not my natural dent.
Susan Boles (05:15):
Yes. I can completely relate to all of that. My professional career has been based off of like coming in and fixing things and then I leave and you have to deal with running the system day to day. I'll help you design the system, but I'm not going to be here to run it because I get bored and I want to go fix somebody else's system. Like you really ended up realizing that it's, at least in my own business, it works really well with clients because they have a system that they can go maintain and they worry about getting bored with it, but that's not my problem, but it doesn't really work very well in my own businesses.
Susan Boles (05:55):
It's not that healthy. It's not that sustainable. You can only push for so long. So it's interesting that my experience really mirrored exactly what you have described here. So you actually been in both positions. So you've gone from the startup CEO to employee back to CEO, business partner. Talk to me about that journey and what that looked like for you in all of those different positions through that path.
Sarah Avenir (06:21):
I think I've always identified with this need for freedom in whatever context that I'm in, and I think that over time, whether ... I have mostly been self-employed my whole life and actually working at the company that I'm with now was a big departure from that for me, because I had not worked for anyone else in 10 years. So freedom has always been deeply important to me that I have autonomy and I'm able to create contexts that I do well within. Part of that I think has to do with just being a sensitive person. I am really in tune with the way that the overall societal systems often don't totally work for me and help me to perform at my best.
Susan Boles (07:19):
I feel like that's a really gentle way. Try to explain how broken our systems are.
Sarah Avenir (07:28):
Yes. Well, I'm like sitting on the floor with-
Susan Boles (07:32):
That was a very gentle way to say that.
Sarah Avenir (07:35):
Well, I'm sitting on the floor in the yoga, I think it's the Sukhasana cross-legged pose. So maybe that's where my gentleness is coming from right now. Ironically, sometimes the way that we get that freedom that we're wanting is by acting in a way that we ultimately don't want to have to act later on. You know what I mean? Pushing ourselves and striving and working to our capacity and I think that ... So for me, I've just had to, as I've stepped into this at first, it was a marketing role at &yet.
Sarah Avenir (08:19):
That was an interesting experience because it only lasted for nine months because we lost one of our biggest clients. So anybody who was working on growth sort of projects that were not billable was laid off. So I had to start all over again and to do so rather rapidly because my family was depending on me and my income.
Sarah Avenir (08:47):
So I went through another season of pushing really, really hard, and I rebuilt all the things that I had set aside in order to work for this company. Then I came on later as a business partner and decided to become invested. So from that perspective, I had to take a little time to sort of de compress. I think sometimes when you're working in that high stress startup kind of mode, it takes a toll on you that takes some time to recover from.
Sarah Avenir (09:23):
I think it took me years to actually believe that I could perform at a high level again, but I slowly started rebuilding that capacity in myself. When I was asked to take on the CEO role, I was worried because I didn't yet trust that I had rebuilt that capacity for myself and I also saw echoes of that same sort of ... It's almost being like a victim of your own optimism and energy level.
Susan Boles (10:03):
Yeah, I feel every bit of that.
Sarah Avenir (10:07):
I saw that in &yet as a company. So I really, for the past two years have committed myself to building systems for myself and for us so that we could be healthier. We could be in a healthier place. So without going into too, too much detail because I've been doing this for a long time, I mean, to me. It's been 15 years now. I always align it with my oldest son's birthday. He's going to be 16 in May and I'm like, yup, that's when I started. Because I wanted to be able to have more flexibility to take care of my first child.
Sarah Avenir (10:50):
It has basically been a path to freedom to being that victim of my own optimism and energy and drive to developing a different kind of approach to freedom, which actually requires some, as Jocelyn Glei calls it, gentle discipline and learning how to work with our own internal resources and with the people in their natural proclivities to be able to design systems built for people rather than just focused on outcomes.
Susan Boles (11:27):
I love this idea that you've kind of been circling around this, this idea that you can still find freedom through systems, through structure, through routine. I would love to explore it and see what that's been like for you. Have you found freedom from your systems?
Sarah Avenir (11:49):
I've always been a big fan of different and ways that people make decisions around their lives, whether it's a tool that I've been excited about or like David Allen's Getting Things Done system or whatever it has been. When I started working on systems to build my own capacity and the capacity of our team, I realized that those systems tend to become the focus and it's just super fun to switch everything from one tool to another and also to believe that you can't do your work until you get the system right.
Susan Boles (12:34):
Yes. Productive procrastination is the worst.
Sarah Avenir (12:37):
Totally. Yeah. So the way that I approach things now is very much like the system has to be secondary. It has to be almost invisible to the work that's coming out of that, and it needs to build really slowly over time. If ever I feel an impulse to just be like, okay, I figured it out. I now know exactly how the system is going to work for the rest of my life. I know that that's a lie that I am telling myself and I have myself slow down and think through how I want to approach it.
Sarah Avenir (13:22):
So I think the systems that I've worked on since really focusing on systems are totally different than the ones that I tried to hack my productivity and my ability to follow through. They're totally different than those systems, I guess, that I used to use.
Susan Boles (13:45):
So you mentioned something. Earlier on in the conversation, you talked about systems of practice and I would love to dig deeper into that and find out what that looks like.
Sarah Avenir (13:56):
Yeah. Well, I think about ... The word system can be applied at so many levels that it can become almost meaningless, and also there are inherent values in a system that may not work for human beings all that well. You think about a system is efficient. It helps us to do a lot with as little as possible. It's allows for predictability so we can actually plan ahead and then ultimately control. So that we feel like we can control the randomness of the universe.
Sarah Avenir (14:34):
I think that those values are necessary and good when we're talking about systems designed around our material resources and the way that we manage those, but when we're talking about human, we need a different value system. So any system that is to be used by humans and for humans is about practice. It is about what we do, not with our material resources, but with our most valuable resources of time and energy and effort and attention.
Sarah Avenir (15:15):
So a system of practice is an approach to making those decisions, but they're not meant to subdue us into this societal standard for what it means to be productive or even healthy. It's like a foundation for service and caring for the people or the person that it's designed for and you can build a system of practice for yourself, for your team, for a whole organization, or even a community and build systems within systems that affect and influence each other. So I've been thinking about that a lot lately.
Susan Boles (15:57):
I love that as a concept because I think traditional productivity systems and like you, I have gone down the rabbit hole on all of them. I love all of the technology. I love all the productivity hacks, but in reality, it's really designed to get you to do more work and at the detriment, potentially of your health, your mental health, your family, your life. I love this idea that systems of practice incorporates being a person and what works for you as a person in a healthy way.
Sarah Avenir (16:35):
Right, and doesn't try to suppress what it means to be human, because those are the things that normal systems, I guess, the default systems in our culture, they try to do. They try to eliminate, or at least reduce human input so that they can reduce human error, but a system of practice is different because it takes into consideration that most of our days we are just practicing.
Sarah Avenir (17:12):
I've gone through several phases in my life where I really wanted to become a runner. They were all short-lived, but the most recent one was maybe a year ago. I remember listening to this running coach podcast thing, and I had never done that before. I had never listened to a coach of runners talk about how you learn to run. One of the things he said was like, "Everybody can run. It's totally false that not everybody can run. The problem is that most people are trying to run too fast than they currently are able to do."
Sarah Avenir (17:56):
He said that your pace, you should be able to keep it up no matter if you're a first time runner or you've been running for your whole life for the entirety of your run. I was just like, oh my gosh, what? I started to try to find what that pace is for me and for me, that pace is slower than walking. It's like a very weird sort of, I'm moving as if I'm running, but it's not a fast pace, but it gave me a lot of confidence because I realized like, oh, I can start here and I will gradually improve with practice. I am a runner today.
Sarah Avenir (18:37):
I'm not having to wait for that. Then the other thing that he was talking about was that most days are maintenance days. That people think about running as like, oh, if I'm a runner, I'm trying to make this certain time, or I am trying to get faster. I'm trying to get better. I'm always doing my best. He's like, "Actually, no, that's not true. If you're a runner, you run all the time. Most days are maintenance days or recovery days. It's rare that you're actually intentionally running faster than your pace in order to increase your time, your distance," whatever it is.
Sarah Avenir (19:17):
So I think a system of practice takes this into account that most days that we're living our lives, our maintenance days. That we can sprint, we can pick up the pace, but the maintenance stays and the recovery days allow us to do that better when it's time to do that.
Sarah Avenir (19:41):
So building our systems of practice based on what is that pace that I can maintain every day, no matter what's going on, I can keep running for the entire 10 minutes or hour or however long it is. That may be an extremely slow pace, but if we start there, then we can build on that incrementally over time and then the whole process is one that's full of ease and natural growth and getting slowly better over time progressing, rather than this kind of like striving. I love that. I hadn't thought about it in a really long time. So I'm glad you asked that question.
Susan Boles (20:25):
No, that is quite possibly the best analogy for maintenance mode I could possibly have ever come up with. Thinking about applying that analogy of learning how to run and that most days are maintenance days to thinking about our business that way. That most days are to just do the work and show up and do the next thing and that so much of our work is the same stuff over and over again.
Susan Boles (20:56):
I think that really encompasses why maintenance mode, even if it's designed to allow you to take a break from the business or designed to just allow you to scale, there's so many things you can do when you go into it with the mindset of just most days are maintenance days.
Sarah Avenir (21:17):
It does preserve your energy. You talked about boredom before, and I definitely relate to that. Sometimes I ask myself the question, "Am I wanting to change this because it's really useful, or is it because I'm getting antsy?"
Susan Boles (21:32):
Sarah Avenir (21:34):
If you do take that approach to really starting with what's easy for you to do every day, then you have a lot more energy during the rest of your time to go wild and to contain that. To contain it into this area of like, okay, now I can just dream because I did my thing that I needed to do. So you can have both, but definitely for those of us who tend to light up when change happens or when we have a new idea or whatever, I'm kind of separating those things, can be really useful.
Susan Boles (22:21):
Hey there, it's Susan. If you've been listening to this interview and it's making you think about some of these issues and ideas, and you wish you could talk to some other real live business owners about it, I wanted to invite you to my free monthly roundtable Dollars and Decisions. Once a month, I get together live with a group of amazing business owners, just like you to geek out on money and operations and workflow and software, all that stuff that you hear me talk about here.
Susan Boles (22:48):
The roundtable is kind of like a live interactive version of the podcast. So I would love to have you join me. To sign up for the next roundtable, head to scalespark.com/dollarsanddecisions, no spaces, no hyphens, or you can just click the link in the show notes. Hope to see you there
Susan Boles (23:10):
Touching on the point of boredom and mindset, I think one of the biggest hurdles for people like you, people like me, lots of business owners, where we get really excited about new stuff is the mindset shift that needs to happen to take you from being a startup CEO, to a maintenance style CEO, for somebody who thinks in systems and systems of practice and who is comfortable with consistency.
Susan Boles (23:40):
So I would love to know if were any learning moments that stuck out for you as you've moved through this. Stuff you wish you'd known earlier, places where you really got stuck from a mindset perspective as you've transitioned from, I can do whatever to I'm going to be consistent.
Sarah Avenir (24:08):
This may be an entirely different track, but I'm thinking about the systems that we have put into place at &yet that we've really tried hard to become a company that values, that study application of energy. So we started out just using the OKR framework to identify like, what are our objectives and key results that we're going after for the year and for each quarter, and really getting clear on that.
Sarah Avenir (24:40):
I think the thing that is really interesting to me is that so many of our systems like OKR as a framework, they're designed around output and they're designed around, we know that we will be successful when, but a lot of those key results ... Josh Seiden actually wrote a book called Outcomes Over Output that's really interesting that helped me connect these dots.
Sarah Avenir (25:09):
A lot of these outputs are behaviors, they're customer behaviors that we want to change. We want more people coming to this page, we want more people saying yes to what we have to offer and because their customer behaviors, they're influenceable, but they're not directly controllable. So we spend a lot of energy around these things that are outside of our control, which is extremely stressful.
Sarah Avenir (25:40):
It may be though that there's a part of us though, that knows that in order to reach our goals, we have to have them. We have to be looking ahead. So it's like, how do you balance those things? I think it's been really challenging for us to do that. Recently though, based on Josh Seiden's understanding of like, yes, there's the objective and there's the key result, but there's also the output, which is like the practice.
Sarah Avenir (26:17):
The practice is part of the hypothesis. It's basically like if we do this, we think that this key result is likely to happen or it's likely to change this other thing. So instead of just tracking what are our outcomes, what are these customer behaviors that we're trying to change? We also pay attention to what our hypothesis is, what the outputs are that we think will change that thing.
Sarah Avenir (26:46):
So once we have that hypothesis, we shove the other thing over to the side. Like we're not really paying attention to the uncontrollable, at least for that duration of time. So we work in quarters. So we're able to set aside a lot of the ruminating questions and ideas and things for a time, because I think that those are the things that interrupt your systems and make you go, "Oh, wait, let's do this other thing, or let's take a totally different path or I don't know if this is working."
Sarah Avenir (27:24):
It's like, if you have these set intervals where you are going to work with your hypothesis for this particular experiment, and you're going to let that thing run its course. Then you have a time of reflection and allowing for questions and ideas to emerge and then you repeat that all over again. I think that has been the hardest and also most fruitful experience for us is just trying to come up with a system of communicating and discovering for ourselves what the right things to do are for where we want to go.
Susan Boles (28:05):
I love the idea of focusing on the pieces that you can control, the actions that you can take that you think might lead to a good outcome or for the goal that you're shooting for, but your focus is less on achieving that goal and more on doing the things that you know you need to do to get towards that goal.
Susan Boles (28:30):
Back in episode 33, I talked to Jason Van Orden about the idea of setting operational goals, which are goals that are focused on the actions you need to take to achieve a particular goal that you set. So if your goal is to sell six spots in your mastermind, you set an operational goal to reach out to 30 people or to send 10 emails about it. Focusing on actions, instead of the goals allows you to make sure you've done everything within your control to reach that goal.
Sarah Avenir (29:00):
In Adrienne Maree Brown's book, Emergent Strategy and also as ... Havi Brooks, she teaches this really interesting approach to understanding ourselves, but she talks about fractals and fractals being like a fern in nature. Every leaf is a representation of the stem and every stem is a representation of the whole frond and the frond is a representation of the entire plant. That if we work fractally then working on one thing is actually working on all of it.
Sarah Avenir (29:39):
So I think that's another piece to this is if we can ... I mean, which is why I think working not only on our personal systems of practice and also working on the larger systems of practice for our business is so important because when we work on our own at that fundamental level, it teaches us so much about what's going to work on a bigger scale. I love that metaphor for thinking about how to align and interconnect the different things that we're trying to do so that they truly are impacting each other in this really positive cycle.
Susan Boles (30:20):
I like that. Fractals, they're magic. So has a CEO now, would you still consider yourself to be a startup CEO? Would you consider yourself to be a maintenance CEO or are you somewhere in the middle? Have you thrown the dichotomy out the window and it is what it is? How have you shifted as a founder, as a leader and what do you still have to work on?
Sarah Avenir (30:57):
Well, I think it's all about thinking in levels. It depends on what level you need to think in, in that moment. I think you actually need to be able to zoom out and think on a big picture level, which might actually mean you have to make a big pivot and a hard decision that isn't built into your current systems. Then zooming into that closer level, that's where you see that at the small, everyday scale is where that bigger picture change actually happens.
Sarah Avenir (31:29):
So to me, I want to cultivate both of those in myself. I think that there's always a pendulum swing from when we're in this sort of mode of really trusting our gut and just going with what feels right and throwing ourselves fully into this big vision, which may or may not be sustainable. Then the other side of cultivating those systems and really being thoughtful. I think that I've gone more over to the side of the systems of practice, but there are still times when I need to be able to make those big decisions.
Sarah Avenir (32:15):
I think it's hard for me to understand when an experiment isn't working, like one that maybe you've been conducting and iterating on for years or something. When discerning when to stop implementing those systems and when to take bigger picture look at things and maybe totally change direction. So, I think that's where I would like to grow more in myself.
Susan Boles (32:50):
I think that's a challenge that maybe everybody struggles with is when have you given this enough to say it's not working? Because I think oftentimes we go the other direction and we give up too soon and we don't follow through enough. We're not consistent enough to really give something a legitimate shot. The other side of that is when have you legitimately given it enough and it's time to do something else?
Sarah Avenir (33:21):
No, it's totally true. I think even when you ... As humans, we are biased toward wanting to continue something and if we stop doing something, we see that as a failure. We see that as, oh, that didn't work. That means my strategy didn't work. My thinking was wrong. I was wrong. That kind of thing.
Susan Boles (33:49):
Author Annie Duke calls this resulting, the idea that focusing on the outcome of a decision changes your opinion about whether or not a decision was a good one. But in reality, the outcome of a decision might not say anything about the quality of that decision. Sometimes luck intervenes, and even a good decision, maybe one with only a 10% chance of a bad outcome still ends up with a bad result, which sometimes causes us to learn the wrong lesson.
Susan Boles (34:19):
It was a good decision, but the result taught you not to make decisions like that in the future. When you set operational goals, like we talked about, you can minimize some of that question of, have I given this thing enough time or energy, because you'll know that you did.
Sarah Avenir (34:37):
Something that I've tried to develop more in myself and in our team is this idea that we naturally thrive when we have the right environment when we have the right things coming in, when we have the right approach, the right systems that really is working with who we are. So I like to think a lot about nurturance and how really good systems help to not to curb our own terrible tendencies, because I feel like that's a lot of times how we think about it.
Sarah Avenir (35:14):
It's like, well, I don't do this enough or I don't do that enough. I honestly think that if we can be well nurtured, then we naturally thrive and we naturally thrive in ourselves and then that extends out into the communities and teams that we're a part of. So I think about the idea of a system being just a really good way to tend to the plot of land that we are given, which includes ourselves and what happens when we actually improve the soil rather than force ourselves to work in rocky or clay type soil situations, and we actually pull those weeds instead of letting them choke out the good things.
Sarah Avenir (36:13):
So I guess really that just the way that we can work with ourselves rather than assuming that we will go to seed if we're not adequately controlled. You know what I mean?
Susan Boles (36:30):
Yes, I definitely ... Yes. I think there's ... I really liked the way CliftonStrengths thinks about qualities, which is that you have strengths. There are good parts to it and there are parts that maybe you need to be aware of and consider how they might impact you negatively and that oftentimes we really focus on holding ourselves back. So in this instance, we're talking about a startup CEO being not great and a maintenance CEO being the thing that we're trying to accomplish, but there's so many benefits to that startup mindset that you can move fast and you're really enthusiastic and it's very passionate and you get stuff done and that there is a time and a place for all of that. And that one isn't necessarily bad or good, but that you can use the skills from both perspectives and nurture the skills you have from both perspectives while still not messing stuff up in your business.
Sarah Avenir (37:41):
It's totally that like pendulum swing thing, like rather than swinging from side to side, that Buddhist principle of the middle way, which is like, it's not either this or that. We actually can take the good things out of both of these things and practice those.
Susan Boles (38:01):
My biggest takeaway from this conversation with Sarah is that it's okay that I have a tendency to lean towards the move fast and break things mantra of a startup, but that doesn't have to keep me from growing a sustainable business that can move into maintenance mode or move in and out of it. There's times in every business where both sets of skills are valuable.
Susan Boles (38:24):
As I have more and more conversations with folks exploring this idea of maintenance mode, I'm coming to realize that maybe it's not really a mode. It's not really a switch that you can turn on and off, and it's more of a mindset. It's something that you can bring to your business, whether your intention is to step away or to scale, but by cultivating a mindset of maintenance or as Sarah called it, creating systems of practice around our work, you build in options and choice and create a culture of ease.
Susan Boles (38:57):
Sarah's running analogy really stuck with me. This idea that most days are maintenance days and that's how you become a runner. You can find Sarah at sarahavenir.com where she's writing a book called People-First Growth. In public, you can read it as she goes or at &yet, and links for both of those are in the show notes.
Susan Boles (39:18):
What do you think? Are you a maintenance CEO, a startup CEO or something in between? What challenges you when you're trying to cultivate a maintenance mindset? I'd love to talk to you about it. So I'm inviting you to my next Dollars and Decisions roundtable. It's a finance and operations strategy session for business owners like you, and it is a great way to talk through some of the challenges you might be facing with scaling your business or trying to figure out how to develop more of a maintenance mindset.
Susan Boles (39:48):
You can register at scalespark.co/dollarsanddecisions, or just click the link in the show notes. See you there. Break the Ceiling is produced by Yellow House Media. Our executive producer is Sean McMullin. Our production coordinator is Lou Blaser. This episode was edited by Marty Seefeldt with production assistance by Kristen Runvik.