CEO Stories: Being Entrepreneurial at the Highest Level

The “CEO Stories: Being Entrepreneurial at the Highest Level” panel addressed the often neglected question of so, you started a business but…what comes next? It’s easy to get swept up in the buzz and excitement of startups, so it was refreshing to hear three CEOs (and Cornell alums) talk about the qualities necessary to be a leader in an entrepreneurial environment. Jamey Edwards, Carl Forsythe, and Smoke Wallin focused on the importance of building a strong company culture, the difference between being a founder and an employee, and how to infect your team with the “disease” of entrepreneurship.

“Human nature is being a creature of habit, but being an entrepreneur means being a creature of change” 

Jamey Edwards

After taking Professor BenDaniel’s course as an undergraduate, Jamey Edwards found himself launched into the world of entrepreneurship. He credits Cornell as being the foundation for his interest in starting his own business and giving him the resources to pursue his passion. Being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone–it requires you to go against human nature and to resist complacency and habit. As the CEO of a new business, Jamey asserted that they key to success is establishing the right kind of company culture. You need to come up with creative ways to set up an environment where people are willing to stick their necks out and make a decision. Team construction is vital–not everyone can have the same role and as Jamey explained “if I have the ‘disease’ of entrepreneurship then I need someone to be my doctor.”

 

“You need to be your boss in order to be someone else’s boss”

Carl Forsythe

Carl Forsythe started off in banking but realized that it wasn’t the career that he wanted–the first lesson he learned was that you need to listen to signals that might be pulling you in a different direction. Moving from the banking industry to the world of entrepreneurship was certainly a culture shock, but Carl also made the distinction between being an employee to transitioning into being a cofounder. Understanding this difference is essential to being a good leader. Often you’re going to feel like you’re the only one committing to it, and sometimes you are, but you need to learn how to lead yourself before you can lead others. As Carl explained, your team needs you because “If left to their own devices, chaos and entropy reign.” Just because you’re the CEO doesn’t mean that you always know what you’re doing, but if you are passionate and persistent and show up everyday you are leading by example and others will follow.

“There are things that you can control and things that you can’t–the sooner you figure that out the sooner you can sleep easy”

Smoke Wallin

“Getting your kids to be Eagle Scouts is a lot harder than becoming one yourself”, Smoke Wallin started by explaining the main challenge of being a leader as an entrepreneur. There’s no formula to success–everyone takes a different path and as a leader you can’t expect your employees to think, react or do exactly as you do. To be a good CEO you have to stop trying to control everything and focus on what you can control: who you hire, your people and your company culture. Invest a lot in your team but don’t shy away from standing up for yourself because people will take advantage. An entrepreneurial leader needs to make the tough decisions, when to say no, when to stay in the game and how to keep your team with you every step of the way. It’s not a top down operation; great CEOs lead from the side not from the top.