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GC to CEO: Leading a Company in Times of Transition

T hursday, May 26, 2016, began like any other day: respond to email and texts at 6 a.m.; ready children for school and drop off; and head to my Palo Alto office. I had been Spectra7 Microsystems’ vice president, general counsel, and corporate development officer since December 2015, working closely with company founder and CEO Tony Stelliga.

I met Tony the previous summer through a mutual friend. We met for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants and we hit it off immediately. He told me later that when he left that lunch he thought to himself: “If only I could have a general counsel like that at Spectra7.” Later that year, through that same mutual friend, he learned that I was looking at opportunities and he sent me a “we need to talk” text.

We met for yet another lunch at one of his favorite restaurants to discuss the offer. Spectra7 is a publicly traded consumer connectivity company traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX: SEV). The company designs and makes high performance analog semi-conductor products for virtual and augmented reality and data centers. Spectra7 needed a general counsel. Tony needed someone to help him construct and close deals and support him operationally. He wanted to spend more time with investors and large customers, and he needed someone to manage overall administrative functions.

That particular Thursday in May passed with no messages or emails from Tony. The last anyone had heard from Tony was during our 5 p.m. team call on Wednesday. Early Thursday afternoon, we received a text from the board chairman stating that he needed to talk to the CFO (Dave Mier) and myself. And then, the CFO and I received an email that we were having an emergency board meeting. Tony was not copied on the email.

I knew then that something was horribly wrong.

Tony was a prolific communicator. He communicated mainly through text and whenever my children saw “Tony” come up on my phone they screamed, “It’s Tony, Mama. Get the phone.” Tony was unique, a serial entrepreneur who brought people together and kept people with him through different enterprises and opportunities. He sold his first company, Softcom Microsystems, to Intel in 1999, and never looked back. He loved cars and music. He was loyal in business and I had seen him be generous, even in separating from employees — a trait I had not often seen in CEOs.

It wasn’t easy to work for Tony. He was difficult and exacting. He had high expectations and showed his dismay openly at mistakes. He pushed his people hard, but he pushed himself harder — and he expected results.

And now he was dead. He had a heart attack on Wednesday, May 25, 2016, not long after the team call. He was 55 years old.

The board appointed the CFO and me co-interim CEOs at that emergency BOD meeting. Dave and I were to announce Tony’s death to the global employees the next day, at the same time the press release went out.

That Thursday evening, I was too numb to cry on my way home. When I pulled up my son ran up to me, hugged me and said, “Tony died.” (I had told my husband after the board meeting.) I announced my new role to my family and my son cried, “Oh no. Now we will never see you.”

After a short night and a 5 a.m. call, I headed out to face the team. The closer I got to Palo Alto, the more I shook. I couldn’t control my hands. I had to announce to Tony’s team that he had passed. Some of them had known and worked with him for 15 years. How could I do this? I sat on my hands at the meeting and Dave stepped in when my speech faltered.

I told the team that Tony had personally chosen almost every one of them and that he had done it with intention, believing in their potential. I told them that Spectra7 was Tony’s dream and legacy and that we owed it him and to ourselves to keep going as hard as Tony drove us all individually. And I told them to take the day and the long weekend to try to absorb the shock. I told them that Dave and I were committed to keeping Spectra7 alive and thriving, and that we would all move forward together.

Then I broke down.

And then, I got down to work as CEO:
•   I watched YouTube videos of Tony’s presentations. I memorized his power point slides;
•   I attended investor conferences;
•   I presented to the 30 shareholders in attendance at the Annual General Meeting;
•   I scheduled bi-weekly executive team meetings to keep us on track with our short and long-term goals; and,
•   I introduced a formal cross-functional product review initiative and a formal cross-functional short and long-term revenue initiative.
I also initiated an in-depth review of our patent portfolio, overhauled our HR systems, and implemented new policies. And often, when I faced self-doubt, I asked myself, “What would Tony do” — and I did it.

When we made our Q2 revenue target, we celebrated.

I selfishly lamented all that I would never learn from Tony as a leader. He had so much to teach those who were listening. He had already taught me a tremendous amount in a short time, including: how to listen, even when you know the answer or especially when you know the answer; and how to put others in a position to be recognized when they least expect it.

Spectra7 has a great team of tightknit employees. They rallied, even through profound grief and uncertainty, and helped steer the ship.

One of my friends asked me what it felt like to be CEO. “A CEO is like the lead singer in a band and the general counsel is the back up singer,” I replied. “The general counsel provides the vocal harmony and counter melody. If everyone is in tune, the back up singer doesn’t outshine the lead singer.” How many times did I slip in last-minute slides at meetings in order to keep Tony honest and accurate in his presentations? How often was I up all night going over press releases and company disclosures in my head?

Personally, I worked on my CEO presence, “owning the role” as I told my friend. Stepping in from the background to the foreground, and stepping up to the microphone.

I was CEO of Spectra7 Microsystems for four months. The board appointed a new CEO on September 26, 2016.

Another friend asked me if after being CEO, would I want to be a general counsel again. “Good question,” I answered. Did he already know the answer? I have been reflecting on it since. Being a GC focused on legal, sales, finance, and operations had positioned me to run Spectra7. Tony trusted me, as the CEO should trust the general counsel, to understand the nuances of the business, as well as the legal complexities. The title was irrelevant. My ability to lead and execute, often fearlessly, was what allowed me to step into the CEO role.

In deeply tragic circumstances, I had taken on the role and responsibility of CEO. I owned it and I learned from it. I grew as a lawyer, a general counsel, a manager, a person, a leader, and especially as a woman.

About the Author

Cynthia J. ColeCynthia J. Cole has since left Spectra7 Microsystems and is currently special counsel at Baker Botts L.L.P. in Palo Alto, California.

On March 9, 2017, Spectra7 announced: “Revenue for the year ended December 31, 2016 was US$8.6 million as compared to $4.2 million in the previous year, representing an increase in revenue of 104 percent.” Tony would have been so proud.

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