Founder’s Corner: Moz CEO Sarah Bird on What it Takes to Succeed as a New CEO
Looking back, Sarah Bird admits that her ascension to CEO of Moz, one of the B2B tech world’s most respected companies, was a little non-traditional. In fact, when you consider that she twice thought about quitting, Bird says it’s kind of amazing that she reached this point at all.
Then again, as Fishkin explained in a blog post when he stepped down as CEO, Bird was an obvious choice as his successor because, for much of the last decade, she’d been navigating the company’s journey from the metaphorical passenger’s seat. It didn’t hurt that Bird’s strengths — people, operations, and finance — were also the ones that Moz needed most as it prepared to scale to its next stage of growth.
We recently sat down with Bird as part of our Founder’s Corner series to talk about the challenges she faced in succeeding a beloved CEO like Fishkin, the importance of CEOs surrounding themselves with great advisors and mentors, and her role in inspiring a more diverse group of people (particularly women) to explore opportunities in the tech space.
“Whenever a problem is presented to you as a leader you have this interesting choice point… You can say, we tried doing [something like this before] and it flopped, let’s not do it. Or you can say it might be different this time. What would we have to do or what would have to be true for us to make it different this time? Let’s try it again.”
— Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz
Listen to the Full Interview
On stepping in as a new CEO
- Things that weren’t hard: Bird was the 8th employee at Moz. She was there essentially from the beginning. As such, she was already deeply familiar with the organization. By the time of the transition she had already been managing the teams, talking with investors, and working with the board. In that sense, the transition was natural and easy.
- Things that were hard: Stepping into roles that Fishkin had always filled and that she wasn’t naturally drawn to — specifically, the PR, interviewing, and public-facing part of the job.
- Things not to worry about: Doing things exactly like the previous CEO did them. You likely have different strengths and maybe a different style. It’s okay if there are some aspects of the job that you don’t do as well. There will be others you do better. The key is figuring out how you personally can provide the most value to the company.
On the importance of meshing with your executive team
- Focus on identifying people with complimentary skill sets: While Fishkin brought a lot to marketing and building Moz’s brand, with her legal background Bird brought a lot to HR, business modeling, and finance. Together, they covered a good mix and learned a lot from one another.
- Surrounding yourself with the right people: Look for smart, talented people who can offer insights into your blind spots in a way that is solution-oriented.
On growing as a leader
- Having the right amount of confidence: It’s about being vulnerable and open enough to accept feedback and other people’s opinions, but decisive enough to also act on your own.
- Balancing creativity and planning: You have to do enough planning to know what you’re trying to do and communicate it, but not so much that you become wedded to a bad idea.
- Thinking strategically: As CEO, your job is creating the vision for the company, communicating it clearly, and seeing it put into action. One of the biggest challenges is focusing on that long-term big picture goal and on the day-to-day efforts of getting stuff done at the same time. A good approach is to translate big ideas into smaller tactical milestones and develop a good communication process and feedback loop.
On sticking it out
- The early days can be tough: There were a lot of challenges for the Moz team early on, and in many ways they had to figure things out as they went. There were difficult decisions to make, requiring hard conversations, and Bird and Fishkin didn’t always agree. They had been friends before Moz, and Bird even considered whether it would be better for her to leave to save their friendship. Instead, they stuck it out and they kept talking through issues. Their relationship grew even stronger as a result.
- During the expansion stage you have to adapt your role: When Moz reached 50 people things were going well. But despite the fact the company was growing quickly, Bird began having self-doubts. She was a first-time COO and thought perhaps other execs with more experience might be better for the organization. Instead of quitting, she got connected to great mentors, people who could help her, and worked hard on her professional development to learn new skills.
On Being a Female CEO
- There’s no denying the gap: Many in the industry have anxiety about the gap between what the tech industry currently looks like and what we would like to see it look like.
- Building the talent pipeline: Bird is personally committed to mentoring and getting girls interested in STEM education.
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