As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yves Lermusi. Yves is CEO & Co-founder of Checkster, a software company powering talent decisions of organizations and providers of staffing and HR services. Lermusi is a well-known public speaker and a career and talent industry commentator. He is published and quoted in leading business media, including Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Business Week, and Time. Lermusi founded Checkster after 7 years at Taleo (TLEO) as President of Taleo Research. Prior to Taleo, Lermusi founded iLogos (acquired by Taleo) and held several positions in research and consulting organizations in Europe. Lermusi earned a degree in Physics and Philosophy, and has a diploma in Economics from the University of Brussels and from the University of London.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was 17, I had a very bad car accident and was left for dead on the side of the road with a blanket over me as they were waiting for the emergency vehicle to arrive. When the ambulance showed up, they checked and noticed I was still breathing. When I spoke with my doctor a few days later, I realized how lucky I was to have survived such a horrific accident. That gave me an awakening, because at 17 you feel immortal, you feel that death only happens to other people or in the movies. But once you realize your time on earth is finite, you ask yourself: How should I spend my time? What would be a successful life?
That brought me to study physics, philosophy and economics in search of answers and then ask myself, “What shall I do now?”
I believe how you spend your time is the most important decision we make as humans, and there are not enough proven frameworks to help to make that decision.
For most people, this question can be more concrete by asking: What job should I choose? That is why I read “What Color is Your Parachute?” by the late Dick Bolles, did many assessments and finally jumped in the world of work. I left Belgium, worked in the UK, Canada and finally the San Francisco Bay area. I participated in a couple of ventures, one of which was an IPO which sold for close to $2B to Oracle. Then, I decided to address the original question of our career path.
That led me to start up Checkster, a software company devoted to help organizations make smarter talent decisions, but also to help people to ask questions about themselves and what they enjoy.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Early on when I was doing the homework to launch Checkster, I got to know Dick Bolles, author of “What Color Is Your Parachute?” and the father of the career counselling field. He told me over lunch that I should decide who I was serving — the employer or the employee. I was puzzled, because it was like asking a marriage counsellor who among the spouses he or she wanted to serve.
But looking back, while we are aspiring to serve both, he was probably right, as most of our actual customers are organizations. Hence the lesson, be clear on who is your customer.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Success is relative, and I still see Checkster as a work in progress.
Building a company is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s an infinite succession of sprints, to use an Agile methodology analogy. To be successful, you should enjoy the journey and the mission. All traditional factors are key: the right people, product market fit, and perseverance.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
I often meet people who have the dream to start their own company, to be a CEO entrepreneur, just like me. We hold the dream of having full responsibility, the freedom and ability to impact the world for the best, like Gates or Musk have done. My advice today is for CEO founders or entrepreneurs, not a Fortune 500 CEO.
1. Get a proof of concept before you jump. It is easy to come up with great ideas. However, the market may not be ready, and you can starve for a long time. When I started Checkster, I knew the recruiting industry and was convinced that a collective intelligence way to upgrade the feedback of colleagues, interviewers and references on candidates with an Amazon-like online rating experience would be in demand. Looking back, the combination of a recession and the time it takes for any enterprise product to be refined always requires more time than you think it will. Make sure you conduct market validation before you jump fully in a venture. It will require late nights and weekends, but it’s better than having to fold early.
2. Hiring is King and Queen. While we are in the business of optimizing talent decisions, it is always amazing to see what a key hire can do, especially at the beginning of a start-up journey. At Checkster, after we sold several customers and we started to see market acceptance, we decided to hire our first salesperson. He was referred to me by two different people and he ended up being our best salesperson ever and carried us during the early days! While executive hiring often gets the most scrutiny, for an entrepreneur, early employees are key.
3. Be mindful of the CEO pleaser syndrome. It is human nature to try to please your boss. And when you are the CEO, if you say something in passing or even make a suggestion that you have not thought through, people may want to try to make it happen just to please you. Make sure to pay specific attention to what you impart to employees.
4. Start early in your career. If you want to try the entrepreneur route, it’s best to do it before you have a family. I became an entrepreneur before and after I had a family, and the mental pressure and complexity entrepreneurship puts on you when you have a family makes it more difficult to succeed. It can be useful to work somewhere else first, to learn, and then launch.
5. Don’t allow BS, just straight talk and integrity, but be mindful of human nature. We have a core value at Checkster, we are always truthful, no BS. But that does not mean we have to be unkind. If something is not working, please be up front about it. It does not help you personally, the outcome for the company or the world at large if we hide failings because we are afraid to offend someone. Let me tell you the story of a sales leader I had once. After a couple of months, a long-tenured salesperson told me, “I think you are going to have a mutiny in the sales team…” After hearing this, I called every single salesperson to ask them what was going on. Overall, my assessment was that we were far from a mutiny. I did a Checkster Talent Insights check on our sales leader and learned that he was the one who was troubled. While directness is a core value in our organization and we work at it, it can be challenging for people to bring up sensitive issues in a discussion, especially with the CEO.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
If you come home emotionally exhausted from work each day, you need to fix something. In the great speech that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford, he says
“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
Some tasks drain us, other energize us emotionally. Find the ones that energize you and you will never burn out.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Yes, my wife. Building a company from the ground up is not easy. It requires many things at the beginning and often you go from a high-high to a low-low in the same day, if not the same hour. Colleagues, spouse and family members are as much invested in the journey as I have been. It creates an emotional connection, a trust factor that enables you to lean on them for support.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
One of my personal goals is to ride horses in the plains of Mongolia.
Professionally, I would like to be able to offer Checkster to every worker in the world. Having the ability to understand how you perform at work without filters from your peers is a gift. If you understand your performance during your early years at work, you can find your sweet spot and truly flourish in your career and life.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
In addition to well-balanced kids, I’d like to see a world where people are not lost and unsure what to do, like I was in my early twenties. In other words, having more people with clarity about how they spend their professional life and finding a job where they are passionate and productive.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Many lives are wasted today because people are misled to believe they are good at something when they are not. We need to have the moral fortitude to give truthful feedback. While sports have the benefit of non-ambiguous feedback, the world of work too often allows people who are poor fit to remain in their job too long. The movement I would love to create is an extension of what Checkster is doing for corporations and extend it to everyone. Everyone deserves to have productive and passionate colleagues. My movement would allow intellectual rigor to filter out the emotional pollution and fear. This would enable us to see the great and the not so great in others and inform them, so they can truly orient their life endeavors towards where they can flourish and make the world even better.
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