CEO Sundays: Risk and Trust – Why Startups Can’t Afford To Make Employees Pay Their Dues

By March 16, 2014


When I’m asked how I became CEO of a successful tech company, I tell people it’s a complicated answer. But it comes down to risk and trust.

Joining Division-D (then 3 Interactive) as one of the company’s first employees was the biggest risk I have ever taken. There were only four of us (me and three guys), and each of us were critical to the startup’s success.

It didn’t matter that I was the only woman. Or that my background was in marketing and PR. I learned to bring in sales and manage digital advertising campaigns because that is what the company needed to succeed. The close working conditions and the bootstrap budgets did not bother me. I was so excited by the work we were doing that I didn’t care who I worked with. I just wanted to get the job done, prove myself and make the company profitable.

I knew I couldn’t bother the CEO with questions and play the political games you see in bigger organizations. It would pull him away from making the company profitable. He understood we both took a risk to bring me into the company – and he trusted me to get the job done.

Titles, demographics and years of experience do not matter when you are fighting to make it. All you care about is that the people around you are just as committed to making the company successful.

As we successfully grew Division-D to a profitable company with a 40-person team, my responsibilities grew as well. Now, as CEO, I know it’s my responsibility to provide those same opportunities to the new employees joining the team.

The perfect example is our new COO, Lori Ritchie. In just a few short years, she grew from the most entry-level position in the company to the C-suite. In the years she has been with us, Lori has earned everyone’s respect because of her ability to tackle challenges and get the job done. As my attention became more focused on running the company, our team naturally started seeking out Lori to get answers to their questions. They trust her for help navigating everything from employee matters to issues that might arise with a client or vendor.

At too many companies, a high-performer, like Lori, would spend years or even decades paying dues before she even got a seat at the decision-making table. But in our culture, her ability to tackle challenges, show results and earn respect made the decision to promote her easy.

By trusting our employees to perform, the risk pays off for both of us. Our team achieves amazing results – even if they only have a few years of work experience. We promote and reward them when they prove themselves. We provide the team with unlimited opportunities to advance, earn more money and take on more responsibility.

That’s why I love our culture. We don’t have time for paying dues. We live and die by our team’s performance, so that’s the only thing we focus on. Dedication and results get you promoted – not politics and dues paying.

Startups have more to offer ambitious, hard-working young professionals than other career options. Looking back on my own career, I know I would have brought the same work ethic to any position with any company. But no other company could possibly have offered the same opportunities and rewards.

If you’re concerned that your company’s growth is stalling or you are worried about how your four-person team can take it to the next level – learn to trust that next wave of employees and let them earn their success the same way you did.

About the Author Ann Wilhelm:

ann-wilhemlAs CEO of Division-D and COO of AdKarma, Ann Wilhelm focuses on driving revenue growth and profitability for the fast growing digital advertising companies. Since joining Division-D as employee No. 4 in 2006 as an account executive, Wilhelm has been involved in nearly every function of the company.  At Division-D and AdKarma, Wilhelm and her team use technology and disruptive thinking to push the envelope of what can be done in online advertising.