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Do You Want to be The CEO or Our CEO?

Clarus Commerce CEO Tom Caporaso discusses the subtle difference between being “The CEO” as opposed to being “Our CEO” and how a leader builds a great company culture through persistence, empathy, authenticity and knowledge.

(As originally published on NASDAQ on April 4th, 2018.)

The other day, one of our team members had an old colleague come visit him in the office.

They were chatting by my desk and he introduced me as, “our CEO, Tom.” That might not seem like anything out of the ordinary, because I am the CEO of Clarus Commerce, but there was one detail that struck me.

He could have said, “the CEO, Tom.”

Again, it was subtle, but it was big. I realized it’s indicative of the way that I try to lead Clarus.

I recently devoured Getting to Us by Seth Davis. The book profiles some of the biggest coaches in college and professional sports, including Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, Brad Stevens, Geno Auriemma, and Doc Rivers.

Davis talks about the formula that each of the coaches use in diverse ways. He called it “the PEAK profile.” The acronym represents Persistence, Empathy, Authenticity, and Knowledge. Every coach is different in upbringing, style and execution, but the PEAK Profile weaves them all together.

As I started thinking about how I lead the company, it’s very much through the coaching mentality of putting the right players in the right spots, arming them with the right tools and education and then letting them execute.

It won’t be a tremendous success every time.

Yes, we will fail at times. But we will always get better. You can often learn more from your failures than from your successes. As I get older and more experienced, I find myself being drawn to crystallizing my ideas and thoughts and the PEAK Profile is something that makes a lot of sense to me. I see many analogies through my personal values and the DNA of Clarus.

Here are some thoughts:

Persistence – When you have seen the tremendous growth we have had over the last 10+ years, persistence plays a huge role. There are things that have gone phenomenally well and things that have been utter failures. The key is to not get too high or too low, and to keep moving forward. That’s persistence.

It’s tempting to read about the companies that are overnight successes, but it took Phil Knight 20 years of grinding to make Nike successful. Most companies continue to grow through consistent focus, agility, adaptability and persistence. That’s Clarus. We all do this together, every day.

Empathy – The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It would be easy for me to sit in my CEO chair and not feel anything, but the truth is, I started my career in the trenches.

My first job was a coordinator role for $17,000 a year. I did all the jobs no one else wanted. I made mistakes. I was frustrated at times with my manager or senior leadership decisions. I pushed to try to get to the next level, but I got passed over for promotions. All of it, good, bad, and ugly, made me better and ultimately got me to the role I am in today.

I’m empathetic because I’ve lived and breathed almost all the roles that the team currently does. It helps me to better understand what frustrates, drives and motivates them.

Authenticity – There’s not a lot of flash or fluff with me. It’s why no one on the leadership team (or anyone at Clarus) has an office. We are all in this together and we’re all very transparent. I subscribe to the mantra, “stay humble, stay hungry.” Whether someone is a C-level executive at a large business or a coordinator working their way up, I treat everyone with respect and dignity.

I love to laugh with people and at myself. I strive to have a positive outlook on things and I work hard to be true to my word.  These are many of the characteristics of our company culture. Say what you are going to do and then do it. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Laugh and be optimistic. It’s simple and it’s real.

Knowledge – I find myself craving more and more knowledge as I get older. What I have found, though, is that all knowledge doesn’t necessarily need to come from books. There are so many inputs of knowledge that you are exposed to each day. Podcasts, blogs, conversations, classes – the list is endless. The key is being open to them all. Experience teaches you a lot and so does failure.

Constant growing, and learning is dependent on what you do with all this knowledge. I truly believe that change is good. If you can’t be open to doing things differently, how do you know it’s the most optimal way to do it?

We work hard with our Clarus Classrooms, Wellness Curriculum and Lunch and Learns. We shadow other companies and attend corporate trainings. Everyone on the team has a training budget. We try to get as many different inputs of knowledge as we can so that we can learn, think differently and adapt.

In almost every catch up meeting I have with my directs, I ask them either broadly how their teams are doing, or more specifically how a team member is doing. As Seth Davis says, it’s about “Getting to Us.” We don’t get to “Us” without an amazing team that is highly engaged, motivated and eager to grow and learn.

We are always working on it, and what it looks like today will be different in the future. However, I feel like we are getting there. In many ways, being called “Our CEO” reflects that.

It’s honestly the greatest compliment I have ever received.

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