On People

I’ve spent the last two weeks realising my role as CEO is fundamentally boiling down to one thing: people. Across all dimensions; the company itself, our partners, our customers, and all functions; hiring, management, commercials and even compliance, really it’s all just people.

So here’s everything I’m currently thinking about On People.

  1. Instincts
    When we are kids we are taught, and rightly, to not be judgemental about others. That’s because most of our instincts at that age are both uninformed without experience and mostly driven by fear. My daughter was being bullied a little bit by another girl in her nursery a few years back, rather than teach her to fear the bully I taught her to pity them, to find out why they are sad and angry to hurt other people. And to her credit, she did. They are actually best friends now.
    But as we grow older we learn a whole bunch of stuff, make many mistakes, and then try to systematically ignore our own heuristics. Sometimes this is the right thing to do- when you make a decision in fear you are almost always making the wrong one. But if you aren’t afraid, of failure or consequences etc, then actually your instincts are your very best decision making tool you have. Time after time whenever I’ve not listened to my instinct I’ve made a mistake.
    Having said that I still am struggling to rely on my instincts. I actually think it’s because of the speed of decision making I’m not giving enough time to both develop and listen to my instincts. When it comes to people I think you really need your instincts; all the subconscious processing going on across multiple modalities of human interaction is incredibly powerful, but only if you can tap into it effectively.

2. You Might Be Wrong

Having said that instincts are the most useful signal when dealing with people, I also think they are like clouds. It’s not so much listening to them as it is trying to perceive a shape in a cloud. Think about how we describe these instincts to each other “a gut feeling” , “a funny feeling” etc.
Instincts may be very powerful, but they are literally nebulous, and you need to explore the possibility you’ve just got this wrong.
Firstly I’m trying to fact check each instinct against some ground truths. What hard data do I have to support this decision etc is the right one? Is that data reliable itself?
Secondly, processes. We’ve created a few checkpoints around hiring for example which are really useful to triangulate decisions independently, and relying on others instincts is also useful, if less tuneable, information.
Lastly, what can I go and do to refine this decision further? Advice is sometimes useful, but you have to take that with a pinch of salt every time without context. More data is the best, and the very best data about people decisions comes from the people themselves. I tend to form a hypothesis to go and test directly or indirectly with that person to confirm or refute.
Finally on instincts you do have to accept that by definition they are irrational. You need to have confidence in them regardless, and accept that despite all the above, if you’re wrong then you’re wrong, and own the consequence.

3. Everything Is People
Internally, I’m realising my job is mostly to find the right people, foster them, hire them, and if needed, fire them. We hypothesised at the beginning that people and culture would be our greatest assets. We are now seeing that effort now start to compound. I had a great moment this week talking to a new hire as the last interview, rather than the first. They were really complimentary about the process, the process created and run by the people Chris and I had hired. It was like a strange grandfather moment where we’d had some external validation our approach to people was working.
The biggest win internally is making the time and really trying to listen to the people in the company. Time and time again a lack of communication has been at the root of any major people mistake I’ve made. But it’s not easy.
I have a weekly 1-2-1 with everyone in the company, and I now stack these meetings on the same day each week. I’ve iterated the formula here quite a few times, and found going deep on one thing much better than a broader “check in”. So now my structure right now is simply ask “what’s your biggest problem this week”, and dive as far as we can into that one thing, with the idea we will find and create actionables.
I’ve started to notice as we scale, this approach yields an emergent property I wouldn’t have anticipated: major problem alignment. Over the last few weeks people have identified one issue as their biggest concern, and that issue has been nearly the same one across the board each week. This is incredibly useful to me as the CEO because that makes my decision where to expend effort fixing something super easy. For example, last week nearly everyone at TORTUS told me they weren’t getting enough “Deep Work” time. On reflection this included me as well. So we decided to create a “Eudaimonia machine” in the office for deep work, kitting a bespoke area that’s physically and socially closed off from the rest of the space and ban external visitors 4 days of the week.
This approach of stacking meetings is something I’d highly recommend because it means each week a big problem is being fixed, and meetings don’t waste time with no meaningful output.

4. The Hard Thing About People

If two out of three parts of CEOing is people, the other part is outcomes. And for me holding people accountable for outcomes has been the steepest learning curve. I think one of the most important lessons is to not let failure be an orphan- if I’ve hired someone and they aren’t performing, then it’s really my fault. Either I’ve hired the wrong person, given them the wrong role, or not sufficiently motivated or onboarded them. So accountability begins at home. Having said that, there’s a weird dichotomy here, while the fault is mine the company still requires a change of direction and that burden falls on the individual, either to leave, upskill or move seat.
As John Collins puts it, you need to get the right people on the bus, in the right seats. So what do you do when someone’s in the wrong seat? Well firstly, you should talk to them. I’ve learnt this lesson the hard way, and actually when you do talk, the person often knows they are in the wrong seat too. If you have good hiring processes and a good culture, this person should be the right person. Sometimes that’s not the case. But often it just means moving things around and better communication. People are usually way more resilient and stronger than we think, especially over time, so have the hard conversations. The results will usually surprise you.

5. Other People
The other people outside the company are just as vital to evaluate as people first and foremost. For example, with our customers and partners I started asking the question “what’s a good deal here?”, which was the wrong one. This assumes people make rational decisions based simply on business facts. They don’t. A) because often those facts are hidden or unreliable and b) because people mostly make decisions based on emotion, not objectivity.
So this question then became “what do YOU want as a person ?” With the decision maker for an organisation for example do they as an individual want to bolster their reputation, to make a commission, to protect the company out of loyalty etc. what is driving them?
But even then there’s a better and simpler question – “who are you?”. A great example of this is with investors. It’s vital to understand who the person sitting across the funding table from is? Why do they do what they do? What’s their background and their interests? This is critical to understand what they will be willing to take internally and bet their own reputation on when it comes to investment.
Lastly, the customer themselves. Every company in the world is always thinking about who their customer is. It’s important again to position the company I think in two fundamental planes when it comes to people; the reality, and their perception of reality. Not only do we need to create extremely safe and secure product for our industry, we also have to ensure that reality is properly conveyed to our customers, to ensure their perceptions align as well. This means not only achieving the compliance standards we need but conveying that on our website. Not only internally benchmarking our AI accuracy but publishing those results. Perception will be incredibly important in AI in healthcare over time, and that perception begins and ends with people.

6. Trust

Ultimately it all comes down to trust. “All happy families are happy in the same way, and all unhappy families are uniquely different”. The same is true of companies. A lack of trust derails everything from co-working to deal making to user churn. Creating a culture of trust does the opposite, supercharges the company and makes everyone from employee to customer happier to engage with TORTUS. So really my main job as CEO is building and maintaining that trust, across every aspect of our people. It’s really hard, and I’ve messed this up more than once already, and I’m sure I will again, but we will get there.

On People, this is a topic that will probably never end for me, or any of us really. But that’s it, for now.