CEO Interview with SkillSurvey’s Ray Bixler

CEO interview

Ray Bixler, CEO, SkillSurvey

I recently spoke with Ray Bixler, CEO of cloud-based reference checking technology firm SkillSurvey, about the challenges and responsibilities of the CEO role. He had some interesting things to say about some of the most common challenges of CEOs, including the isolation of the job and the difficulties of transitioning from being a specialist in one area (in his case, sales) to the generalist approach required of a CEO.

What is SkillSurvey? “Our company provides a better way for companies to gather feedback from job references of candidates. Reference checking has been a source of frustration for years and even decades. Most of the time it is done via phone. Most likely, the only information retrieved about a candidate is verifying dates of employment. At the end of the day, everyone agrees that if you were able to gather better feedback, you could make more informed hiring decisions. Our solution helps over 1,400 companies gather better information from those references.”

As someone with a sales background, what would you tell someone trying to transition from sales to a CEO position? “Much of it was natural for me, because selling is a big part of the CEO’s job. SkillSurvey was still in the early-stage growth mode when I came on board in 2006. As a VC-backed company, there was a lot of pressure to get results. My sales background helped me guide the company to growth (and still does). I needed to be able to persuade our employees, investors, prospects, and others that our vision and strategy was right and that we were making the right decisions to move the company forward. Especially at a start-up, everyone is selling early on, so you have to make sure they know how to do it to the best of their abilities. That’s a big part of the CEO’s job, especially when a company is in high-growth mode.”

What surprised you the most about the CEO role? “It can be lonely at the top. As the CEO you often have to be the one to pull the trigger and make decisions. Then you have the responsibility to make sure that all of the parties involved understand the decision and support it. Everyone should agree with or at least support your decision so the company can grow.”

How do you handle that lonely position/isolation and find people to help you out? “I’m a member of a CEO forum group in Boston with about eight or 10 other people. We have quarterly meetings, and each one of us is required to present a member challenge that is usually pretty intimate. This is valuable, because the issues we discuss are often some of the hardest to get feedback on as a CEO. I always greatly look forward to the meetings and get one or two pieces of advice that help me with the decisions I need to make. I also have advisors that I rely on, which is valuable in a different way. When you are with other CEOs, it’s similar to being with other baseball players and getting advice on your swing. When you receive advice from former CEOs who are now consultants, it’s like getting advice from a coach. They have a whole different perspective.”

When I talk to CEOs, they say talent is always #1 or #2. What do you think? “Talent is always at the forefront. The smaller the company, the more talent matters: In a company of 10, making a bad hiring decision can take the company sideways or backwards.”

What have been your management influences? “I remember some leaders telling me to make sure you have an agenda for every meeting you hold, even one-on-ones. I follow that advice to this day. Also, I value transparency. I worked for some people who didn’t share as much as they could about the business or the reasoning behind certain decisions. This was demotivating for the staff. I find that sharing as much information as possible, such as finances, indicates to the employee population that we respect them and we’re all in this together.”

How do you think about balancing internal vs. external constituencies? “They are clearly in most cases interwoven. You should look inward at your employees in a way where you treat them with respect. You need to give them the opportunity to grow professionally and feel motivated. In the end, they are the ones that should help set the direction of the company. From an outside perspective, you should ask clients and advisory boards for their opinions and advice. It’s good to hear their opinions and let them offer an opinion on what they think the company should do. It’s important to hear all sides.”

What do you continue to struggle with as a CEO? “As CEOs, there are so many opportunities in front of us that it’s really difficult to recognize which ones are ultimately the ones we should pursue. It always comes back to something that has made us at SkillSurvey extremely successful and that’s focus. Some leaders think they should go as broad as possible with their product portfolios. In the end, it’s actually not a bad thing to be really, really good at one thing and to execute on that one thing. Doing too much leads to failure more often than doing one thing really, really well. I have to go back every year and make sure I push myself to remember that. While we have opportunities in front of us, we must make sure that we don’t bite off more than we can chew.”

What has changed about your approach as you’ve grown employees and revenue? “I allow others to lead more. I am delegating more responsibility to the people on my team. Also, since I moved from sales to the CEO role, I have to make sure I don’t spend too much time in a sales role. I have to be the one looking outside, reading about what’s going on with the economy or the market, seeing what’s shifting around, and paying attention to that while the company is doing the day-to-day work.” 

If a new college graduate came to you and said they want to be CEO, what would you tell them is the best preparation? “This is timely because my nephew asked me the same question last week. My first piece of advice is: work really hard. Show up to work first, leave last, picking up experiences along the way. Take as many responsibilities as you can.”

Related Articles:

How CEOs Can Prevent the Scourge of Isolation

Why Do So Many Bright Business People Fail So Impressively As CEO?

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