CEO Swap: How trading jobs for one week helped these founders become better leaders, and people

randwilswap

Rand Fishkin and Wil Reynolds swapped jobs for one week. That’s Fishkin on the left behind Reynolds’ chalkboard wall in Philly, and Reynolds on the right rocking a Moz t-shirt. Thanks to Fishkin and Reynolds for providing the photos in this post.

Life returns to normal for Wil Reynolds and Rand Fishkin today. Last week, though, was far from regular.

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Teresa Lopez let Fishkin shadow her, teaching him how SEER does its SEO deliverables.

The two buddies and startup founders conducted a unique and ambitious experiment, with Reynolds taking over Fishkin’s job at Seattle-based Moz for one week, and Fishkin doing the same for Reynolds at SEER Interactive in Philadelphia.

It was just like the ABC show “Wife Swap,” but with CEO jobs instead. Fishkin and Reynolds flew across the country and shared almost everything from their respective companies last week, swapping calendars, emails and blogs, and even handling customer pitches. They even lived in each other’s places and actually handled an employee two-week notice.

We caught up with the CEOs to find out what the experience was like. Both shared some cool insights into what they enjoyed, learned and had difficulty with spending a week in each other’s shoes.

GeekWire: What was your favorite part of CEO Swap?

Rand Fishkin: Feeling like I made a positive contribution to the long-term success and happiness of SEER’s teams and company. It’s hard as an outsider, in a week, to effect truly meaningful change, so I focused more on asking people to upgrade their thinking about the long-term mission, vision, values, and processes, and to push leaders I found in the organization to take on more responsibility and extend their influence.

Wil Reynolds: Learning that I could in a short time start to learn enough about the business, to be able to offer some meaningful input, and getting my team exposure to a different management/leadership style.

Wil Reynolds hanging out in the Moz offices.

Wil Reynolds hanging out in the Moz offices.

GW: How about the most challenging part? 

Fishkin: There were two really big ones for me. First off, the time change to Eastern (three hours ahead of Seattle) in combination with acclimating to Wil’s early morning schedule (vs. my own policy of staying up until 2 a.m. and not taking meetings before 11 a.m.). And, second, the barrage of people looking to me to give input and assist in meetings without much context or comfort on Monday and Tuesday — after Wednesday, things started to go more smoothly.

Reynolds: Rand helps a LOT of people out, which is great, but it also makes for a challenge. I bet Rand works 15-to-20 hours more a week than I do. I’d say I am a 55-to-60 hour a week guy, he felt more like 75-to-80, as a result of his deep generosity with his time, combined with how accessible he makes himself to the larger community, makes for a lot of late nights working.

Rand Fishkin helped the SEER team cook for the families at Ronald McDonald House.

Rand Fishkin helped the SEER team cook for the families at Ronald McDonald House.

GW: Very interesting. Now, what about your most memorable moment?

Fishkin: There were so many! My top three were probably:

1. Being in a client meeting with Wil’s dog, Coltrane (whom Wil told me he takes to the office on Thursday’s, so I did likewise), and explaining the value of multi-touch attribution while scratching her stomach and trying to figure out how I’d know if she needed to pee.

2. Having a 1:1 with a SEER team member who put in two weeks notice as we sat down for coffee.

3. Drinking something called “pickleback shots” at the Druid’s Keep in Northern Liberties with the SEER team at the end of an incredibly challenging, rewarding, emotionally and physically exhausting week.

Reynolds: Moz didn’t have a “moment” — the thing that was most memorable was the consistent feeling of feeling welcomed by the team. If I had to add another two:

Meeting with Michelle Goldberg — she completely changed my perception of what a VC can be. She never asked me about revenue, or my growth plans for SEER, we just talked. I expected the conversation to be about revenues, and run rates, it was about so much more than that.

[Moz President and COO] Sarah Bird and I walked home on day 1. I saw her help a homeless couple whom had dropped some food (accidentally), she started running them down to help them get their food back. It goes to show that even in the midst of a deeply serious conversation, Sarah is still out there trying to watch out for all people, that act spoke volumes about her.

Reynolds checking Fishkin's email.

Reynolds checking Fishkin’s email.

GW: When did you feel most uncomfortable?

Fishkin: It was definitely uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of a resignation, but I think I was even more uncomfortable on a sales call, when the potential client in question became upset and confused by my presence on the call. Although a SEER staff member had confirmed my participation prior, that message apparently hadn’t reached all the parties on the potential client’s end. I worried that I was potentially costing SEER business, and I didn’t know how to respond to help the other party feel at ease.

Reynolds: I felt most uncomfortable when there were customer service issues — thank god Aaron Wheeler and his team have so much patience and an ability to put themselves in the shoes of their customer. I had one customer who really was giving the help team a hard time, in my opinion. I’m more thin-skinned than they are — I wish I could have told that guy to go elsewhere, but I couldn’t. I had to learn how to deal with it, and let Aaron handle it.

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Fishkin playing bocce with the SEER team.

GW: How did employees respond to you?

Fishkin: The team’s reaction was almost universally positive. I suspect there were a few folks who thought it was a peculiar and perhaps not a particularly valuable exercise, but everyone I interacted with directly was not only supportive and friendly, but inclusive and appreciative, too.

Reynolds: Mentioned this before, like I was one of their own from day 1.

Reynolds has a laugh during a Moz meeting.

Reynolds has a laugh during a Moz meeting.

GW: What was it like answering each others emails, phone calls, etc.?

Fishkin: Email was weird! I think answering someone else’s email is the closest I’ve ever come to crawling inside their skin and living as them, especially because folks who emailed us might not necessarily know that they were talking to the other. I got emails from Wil’s Mom about traveling safe, from his wife Nora about bank bills, from his clients about contracts, and from friends about get-togethers. Over the course of the week, Wil’s email painted a picture that felt more complete than even living in his home and taking his meetings at work did.

Reynolds: Difficult, because we had to get context before we could do anything. That took some time and I’m an impact player — I like coming in and making a difference. With Moz I had to go in with that “Beginner’s Mind”: Asking a lot of questions first, understanding context, needing to get back story, then maybe making a recommendation.

SEER's SEO team meeting have grown too big for its conference rooms. A church, as Fishkin found out, is the next best thing.

SEER’s SEO team meeting have grown too big for its conference rooms. A church, as Fishkin found out, is the next best thing.

GW: What most surprised you about each other’s job?

Fishkin: I was amazed to see how involved Wil is in the day-to-day operations and decisions at SEER. Despite a team of 70-plus people, he makes time for his team like few leaders I’ve ever seen. Wil doesn’t think anything of doing the dirty, un-fun, unglamorous tasks either. He’ll go re-wire the offices, set up new employees’ laptops, deal with collections issues — basically anything that needs doing, Wil does. That was humbling to watch.

Reynolds: How many people Rand tries to help that are not customers. It was great to see how generous Rand was with his time.

GW: What will you miss most about Moz/SEER?

Fishkin: The team! They’re so incredibly dedicated to SEER and to each other, and their passion for doing great marketing is infectious. Of course, I’m gonna miss Coltrane a lot, too :-)

Reynolds: The team — that is a simple one.

GW: What’s the biggest takeaway you’re bringing back to your company?

Fishkin: I feel as though I was able to upgrade my empathy for Moz’s customers (of which SEER is one) and for consulting/agency life in general. In particular, I noticed that SEER (probably like many agencies and consultants) uses very different tools and products/processes to accomplish various tasks. I’d always thought of Moz as needing to fulfill all of our customers’ needs in one place, but I’m getting the idea that it’s far better to be really good at a few things rather than mediocre at a whole mess of them.

Reynolds: There is a lot more than one, but I think I learned a lot about myself and how would you run a company if you weren’t a vet at what it is they do. So I learned how to ask better questions.

Paisano's sandwiches: Fishkin's favorite food he tried in Philadelphia.

Paisano’s sandwiches: Fishkin’s favorite food he tried in Philadelphia.

GW: What was your favorite part of Seattle/Philadelphia?

Fishkin: Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood has some of the best bars I’ve ever been to, hands down. Standard Tap, Druid’s Keep, Blind Pig, Liberties, The Abbey — not pretentious, not fancy, just fun and authentic and serving up seriously good beer.

Reynolds: Living near Cal Anderson was great. I liked being able to have a park so close with so much going on.

GW: What was it like living in each others places? 

Fishkin: The last night we stayed over, Wil’s dog was whimpering outside the bedroom door. I had to get up and let her in, whereupon she proceeded to lick my hand and sit next to the bed half the night. Needless to say, I felt very welcome.

Of course, I could have lived without the bus depot around the corner with all the damn buses backing up all night long (beep… beep… beep)! Earplugs were essential :-)

Reynolds: I think this was a critical piece, seeing the pictures in Rand’s house, his desk, etc – it made it more real.

GW: What was your favorite food you ate?

Fishkin: Paisano’s sandwiches on Girard were unbelievable. I’m sad Seattle doesn’t have anything like that.

Reynolds: Li’l Woody’s was a thing of beauty, and the conversation with Derric that went along with it around branding was the right topping :)

GW: Would you do this again?

Fishkin: Yes, absolutely. But I need a break first :-)

Reynolds: Yes, definitely.

GW: OK, then, what would you change?

Fishkin: I honestly don’t think I’d change much at all. Maybe just get some better earplugs or a white noise generator :-)

Reynolds: I’d take my wife and dog :) But seriously I would have loved to have spent more time with Aaron and the help desk team, as it would have given me more time to understand the customer, and the more customer needs are understood, the more valuable we can be.

Editor’s note: Moz is an annual sponsor of GeekWire. 

Editor’s note No. 2: Fishkin will be speaking at GeekWire’s Startup Day on Oct. 25, joining an all-star cast that also includes former drugstore.com CEO and AOL board member Dawn Lepore (talking about how to construct a board);Smartsheet.com founder Brent Frei (discussing how to revive products on life support) and Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman (talking about managing yourself as a startup founder and CEO). Get your tickets here

  • dsottimano

    Great experiment, great article :)

  • http://www.heatherphysioc.com/ Heather Physioc

    Per Rand’s comment: “I was amazed to see how involved Wil is in the day-to-day operations and decisions at SEER. Despite a team of 70-plus people, he makes time for his team like few leaders I’ve ever seen. Wil doesn’t think anything of doing the dirty, un-fun, unglamorous tasks either.”

    Wil Reynolds also showed similar behavior at MozCon. Of all the three days worth of speakers, he was the one I noticed time and again sitting down with attendees in the mess hall at meals to chat, staying after sessions to give away books, and answering people’s questions one at a time for as long as it took. It looked like every person who stopped to talk to him got individual, personalized attention. He has a way of making the person on the other end of the conversation feel like the only person in the room, even when there are 1500 people around them. Kudos.

  • http://www.heatherphysioc.com/ Heather Physioc

    Per Rand’s comment: “I was amazed to see how involved Wil is in the day-to-day operations and decisions at SEER. Despite a team of 70-plus people, he makes time for his team like few leaders I’ve ever seen. Wil doesn’t think anything of doing the dirty, un-fun, unglamorous tasks either.”

    Wil Reynolds also showed similar behavior at MozCon. Of all the three days worth of speakers, he was the one I noticed time and again sitting down with attendees in the mess hall at meals to chat, staying after sessions to give away books, and answering people’s questions one at a time for as long as it took. It looked like every person who stopped to talk to him got individual, personalized attention. He has a way of making the person on the other end of the conversation feel like the only person in the room, even when there are 1500 people around them. Kudos to Wil for that.

    • Mr. Dick

      1500… speaking in code I see.

      2b1ask1?

    • wilreynolds

      @HeatherPhysiocSEO:disqus That was really touching, thank you! I try so hard (as does Rand, which I learned too) to really just help people and try to be there for them when they need me. Again thanks for that comment. Its greatly appreciated.

  • http://www.startupmanagement.org/ William Mougayar

    Freaky parts, but the outcome seems like a success.

    Are you sure this wasn’t a pilot for a new reality TV show? :)

  • http://www.danielvareta.com/ Daniel Vareta

    This is indeed a great experiment. I was looking forward to this since a while now.