A Year of Learning: My 3 biggest lessons from my first 12 months as CEO

Twelve months ago, I was named CEO of Javelina. Today, one year on, I just re-read the blog post I wrote shortly afterwards, in which I declared:

“Here is what I have decided to do. I am going to be transparent. I am going to share my experience on this new path. The highs, the lows, the good, the bad and the embarrassing. I plan to share with our team and with you. To hold myself accountable, to learn from your reactions and ideas, to share what we learn, how we succeed and how we fail.”

Since then, I have written about constructing my own job description, why we’ve been hiring 100% the wrong way, how hard it is to promote yourself, and the importance of ensuring you have the right people in the right seats on your team.

My hardest and proudest writing moment last year was sharing about banishing my Good Girl Complex. The resounding response this post received made the great discomfort of publishing something so personal worth it.  

I read an article over the holiday break about naming the year you just had. It prompted me to say out loud: “2017 was the year of…..learning.” The word came to me instantly. If there is ONE thing I did last year, it was learn things. I learned more in my first year running a company than perhaps I have in all my other professional years combined.

In reflecting on the last 12 months, I realized three of my biggest lessons learned started with one fateful project.

Indulge me in a story I like to call “Don’t worry about the spreadsheet.”

One of the big projects the team worked on internally last year was to identify the specific changes we want to make in the world. As a company, Javelina’s purpose is to advance equality and human dignity through social, political and economic change. In an effort to give that some meaningful definition, we worked as a group to decide what the specific changes we want to make in the world are, and how we are defining success. We call these our Impact Goals.

Creating our Impact Goals was a multi-stepped process that involved many months, several meetings, and a spreadsheet.

At one point, we had a bunch of ideas for goals – and tactics for meeting these goals – housed in what had become a fairly large, cumbersome Google Docs spreadsheet.  The next step was for everyone on the team to go into the spreadsheet and make edits and suggestions. From there, we would synthesize the feedback to come up with our final goals for change over the next ten years.

To me, this was a BIG DEAL. This was us deciding what is most important to us as a company. It would determine the types of clients we would work with, the kinds of projects we’d seek, and ultimately the change we would make. And yet, a fraction of the team members met the deadline to enter their feedback into the spreadsheet.  

To say I was frustrated is an understatement. I couldn’t understand why the team couldn’t see how important this was, or frankly, what an awesome opportunity it was to be involved in company strategy at this level. It wasn’t like I was asking anything hard. Go into the spreadsheet. Read the text. Make comments. Easy peasy. I was mad.

One day, I lamented my annoyance to my business partner Bill.

“Why don’t they care?” I ranted. “This gives me huge concern about how we work as a team” I raved. “There’s no evidence that they are excited about what we’re trying to build here.”

Bill listened for a long time, and then he just said: “The spreadsheet is really hard to read.”

He stopped me in my tracks. He had a point. With numerous columns, rows and a complex color-coding system, we’re not talking about a simple spreadsheet here. It had never occurred to me that anything other than laziness and dissent was preventing people from giving feedback.

“Look around,” he said. “Everyone is engaged. The team gives great ideas in our meetings about this. On top of that, project work is going well, clients are happy, and we’re growing. There are signs all around that things are going well and that the team does care – deeply. Don’t worry so much about the spreadsheet.”  

I took his advice, and at the next staff meeting asked the team how they would like to give feedback on this content. They suggested meeting in smaller break out groups to brainstorm, and then bringing our ideas together in one final large meeting. So that’s what we did, creating our Impact Goals all the way through 2027. (And, we met all of our 2017 goals).  

I learned three invaluable lessons from this experience.

1. Make sure you have your eyes fixed on the correct finish line.

I became so laser-focused on the spreadsheet that I forgot the spreadsheet was simply a vehicle to reach our ultimate destination: the Impact Goals. The vehicle we used wasn’t important; the destination was. I got so distracted by the wrong thing that I lost sight of where we were going – and worked myself up into quite a state in the process.

Instead, stay focused on the true definition of success. If you’re struggling to get there, before you delve head first into a temper tantrum, look at your methodology and see if it could be improved. Which leads me to Lesson Number Two.

2. There is always a third way.

When you’re deciding between two unlikely or undesirable options (everyone fills in the spreadsheet and I am happy vs. no-one fills in the spreadsheet and I am mad), remember that there is always a third way.

There is always a different or creative way of doing things. Think about this right now – do you have a professional or personal dilemma in which you’re not sure what to do? Do none of your options seem all that appealing or realistic? I’m telling you – there is always a third way.

For example, at one point earlier this year, I wanted to hire someone but they were out of my price range. I had two options.

  1. Hire them and risk our financial stability OR
  2. Don’t hire them and lose out on a fantastic person I was sure would help us grow

After much soul-searching, I realized there was a third way. I offered them a bonus structure based on performance-related incentives. It made them affordable without risking a financial commitment we couldn’t afford. They said yes and it’s been a remarkable success for the company and for the team member.

3. Effective management is not about you.  

A year as CEO has taught me that everyone is different in every way, and that effective management is about taking what works for you out of the mix and instead learning how to get the most out of others.

The spreadsheet system was what worked for me. It’s easy for me to read a large amount of text, work alone to form opinions, and write them up in the form of comments. My skill sets and authority lend themselves to that kind of feedback. As I learned, not everyone’s do.

Knowing that I wanted to engage everyone in meaningful feedback, I asked myself the wrong question. I asked: “What is the best way for me to get comments on this from the team?” Instead, the question should have been: “What method of giving comments will encourage and enable all team members to give meaningful feedback?”

The first question was about all about worked for me. The second was all about what would work for the people on my team.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking: “I’m the boss – the team should do what I tell them to do.” This is not only unrealistic, but doesn’t meet my needs. Ironically, approaching something in the way that works for me ends up not working for me because it doesn’t generate the desired outcome.

Anything I’ve done well this year has been when I’ve checked my ego at the door and thought about how to approach things from the point of view of others. I can’t say I succeed at this all the time, but it’s always where I end up. After trying something my way and failing, I always end up finding the right solution by considering how other people work best.

If 2017 was the year of learning, what will 2018 be? The year of growth maybe, or the year of partnership? I’ll keep you posted. One thing is for sure, there will always be learning. Thank you so much to every last one of you who have shared your thoughts, comments and ideas on my blogs with me. You’ve taught me so much.  

Javelina Blog Author Ariel Reyes
How businesses are taking a stance

How businesses are taking a stance

Sample caption text lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit Everything is political. You can’t run from it and you can’t hide. You shouldn’t want to though, because it’s not something to be feared, but embraced. People like to say they’re neutral or...

Javelina Blog Author

Catherine Alonzo, CEO & Founding Partner

Catherine Alonzo is the CEO and founding partner of Javelina, a company that brings brand experience to life for non-profits, businesses, campaigns and individuals. Having played a pivotal role in growing Javelina into a leading branding and marketing firm, Catherine specializes in effective messaging, brand development and business strategic planning.


Email Javelina Blog Author Catherine AlonzoFollow Catherine Alonzo on TwitterFollow Catherine Alonzo on Instagram



Across every platform. On every issue. Make Javelina part of your team.


Ready to bring your brand experience to life? Let's chat!

800 N. 1st Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85003
Map to Javelina's Office in Downtown Phoenix

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Share This