December 30, 2019

3 ways stepping outside my comfort zone led to professional growth in 2019

From CEO and co-founder, Taralinda Willis.

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For the 2018 holidays, Dale and I invited the entire Curate team over for dinner. We all fit around our six-seater kitchen table. 

This year, our staff of 15 would have been very crowded at that table.

Curate saw tremendous growth this year, fueled by the closing of our $1.6 million fundraising round over the summer. One big move was developing a customer success program, which helped us systematically find out exactly which new features our customers wanted most. Based on that feedback, we made the strategic decision to focus our development on expanding the CurateLOCAL database, and we grew it from 12 to 50 states. 

We also had to part ways with a couple of employees, which was extremely painful. You put so much time and energy into your team, and for it to not work out is really disappointing. But that pain was a catalyst for us to invest in the human side of the business. 

As part of that process, we developed company values. One of them, fittingly, is “Be Uncomfortable.” And let me tell you, we’ve all been uncomfortable this year. Did I mention how weird it is to pitch your business to a room full of strangers, knowing they will decide on the spot whether to fund you? 

But even in the day-to-day of running a growing startup, there are so many opportunities to be uncomfortable. Looking back, I see three recurring situations where leaning into discomfort led to incredible professional growth. 

1. Recognizing my limitations and seeking outside support

When we started the year, we did not have a standardized hiring or onboarding process. We hired people who could do the job and who instinctively felt like a good fit. And it was working until all of a sudden it wasn’t. Having more people was supposed to make things easier, but our communication was breaking down. 

Just as this stress was reaching a breaking point, we met Keith Fuller from All About EX. We knew we needed to improve our employee processes, so we brought on Keith to help. 

I knew bringing in an outside perspective would be valuable, but I was totally surprised when he had us start by defining our company values. I didn’t realize how important these values would be, but now that we have them, we use them to make difficult decisions frequently.  

When it became clear that the biggest growth opportunity was on the CurateLOCAL side of the business, I realized I was going to need to learn to speak the language of local government, which was a completely new world for me. 

I had to find people who could get me up to speed in a new space. Finding the right people to ask for help was daunting, but I tapped into my network and found people to be incredibly generous with their time.

2. Understanding the value of my time as the CEO

One of the hardest things to wrap my head around as I’ve transitioned out of the mindset of an individual contributor is the value of my time and my obligation to use it on CEO-level work. I feel very strongly about embodying servant leadership, and when we first started, this meant that I took care of small details to make life easier for my team, like buying snacks at Costco on the weekends and ordering office supplies. Now I know that I can’t afford to focus on those details, even though it feels conceited to say that. 

Valuing my time also means being discerning in who I meet with. As I tapped into my network to find people who could educate me about local government, I found it was more helpful to meet several times with the same person than to meet once with everyone I got connected to. Taking everyone up on the offer could mean losing hours of work without gaining new insight. Again, it feels uncomfortable to place a higher value on my time than on someone else’s, but that’s the reality of being a CEO.

3. Letting things go to empower my team to grow

I’m a doer. I constantly have to be reminded to let things go. Luckily, I have my board and Dale, my husband and co-founder, keeping me in check.

One thing I’ve held onto as my team has grown is having a one-on-one meeting at least biweekly with every person who reports to me. But with a larger team, that now takes a significant chunk of my time, and things that I used to handle in the background can fall through the cracks. Dale has been great to gently point out what I need to delegate.

It can be hard to assign tasks that you know are outside of an employee’s job description. Luckily, everyone on my team is willing to step up and pitch in wherever they’re needed. And because of that, I’ve gotten to watch each person on my team grow in their career because of something they took on this year that made them uncomfortable. It has been awesome and an honor to watch them mature in the business with me. 

Looking forward to 2020, I’m incredibly excited about our growth and how we will better support our customers and their access to municipal data. We’re taking our national expansion and revamping our product to better support our customers. We’re investing in our product, our AI, and our data - it’s going to be a great year. Here’s to a new year filled with many more uncomfortable opportunities for growth! 

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