Stepping down as Sanctus CEO

I've been putting off writing this post.

There aren’t many blog posts that I haven’t published, I don’t have too many drafts. Most of what I write I share, unless it’s a journal entry for my eyes only.

Yet I have an unpublished blog post on my medium account which shares my story of the last 12-18 months that is one of those few unpublished posts.

I never had a great title for it; “Founders Mental Health”; “Startup CEO mental health”; “Mental health in Leaders” - something along those lines, but I never could quite put a name on it.

I’ll start at the end and go back from there. I’ll start with the culmination and the great news, the cause for celebration, for me and Sanctus.

2 weeks ago we introduced Chris as Sanctus’ new CEO to the world.

As a result I have stepped down as the CEO of Sanctus, the company I founded.

That’s the punchline, as it were, and today I’d love to take the time to try and articulate my journey to this point, so today’s could be a long one.

 I shared this story with GB on his Podcast, Talking Business.

I found a note on my phone from April 2018 where I wrote;

I wonder if I’m the best person to be the CEO? Maybe at some point we could get in someone better than me? I feel like I’m holding the business back. I’d love some free space to create new things within Sanctus, like a journal. The Sanctus Journal.

That was ~2.5 years ago.

I think truthfully as soon as the business got to a certain size, I both felt out of depth and bored too.

I always feel out of my depth in a startup or doing anything creative, that’s the point, you’re on the edge, the edge of reality, the edge of known and unknown.

It’s that growing edge that I love and crave; where opportunity meets potential, so I love being there.

Yet when I met my edge as a CEO, I didn’t really fancy it. I wasn’t interested in reading all the Leadership Books or getting an Executive Coach. I was more interested in reading Poetry and Moby Dick.

For a period, I really loved being a CEO, stepping in and learning to lead, yet then I realised I wasn’t enjoying it a lot and I battled with the difference between avoiding something because it's hard and not wanting to do something altogether.

There are a lot of things I’ve done as a Startup Founder that I’ve not enjoyed, yet I’ve still wanted to do them. There was a delicate internal test that I had to take of asking whether I am afraid of the role and doubting myself or is my passion just not here for playing this part?

It took me a long time to wrestle with that and I was judging myself a lot. I judged myself a lot for believing that I should be able to lead a company and the acceptance was knowing that I am capable and I can do it, yet I had to surrender to the fact that I don’t want to be a CEO.

I was resisting myself so much and I was fighting myself, I was at war with myself on the inside which created a lot of suffering, where I couldn’t accept where my life truly wanted to go, where I truly wanted to go (which remains unknown) yet I knew I didn’t want to be the Sanctus CEO right now.

In the end, what I was clinging onto was certainty and not having to enter a period of unknown. I was resisting letting go and afraid to let go. I didn’t want to drop Sanctus and leave the business without leadership, yet I was more afraid of what letting go meant for me.

Rationally, I knew that a new CEO for Sanctus would be a great move, that one was simple. The journey to get there was less practically about that and more emotionally about me and what I was holding onto.

People often refer to starting a business as “your baby” and whilst I’ll never get pregnant and be a Mother I can understand the reference. As the Founder of Sanctus, I birthed it. That’s a funny word to use, but I did - it popped out of me, I was the right person, at the right time, with the right story, skills and place to start a business that absolutely has to exist.

As a Founder, that often makes you the default CEO and I have been to now. Yet like a baby, they grow up and the business has grown up and matured, so it needs different things and different people around.

The shift I have really had to work on and sit with is that Sanctus isn’t a part of me. I used to say “Sanctus is me” and the truth is it’s not me, or mine, it’s ours. It’s not healthy for me to be so dependant on a business, nor is it healthy for a business to be too dependant on it’s founder. Sanctus isn't a piece of my identity, it's a business that I started and together, with out early team, partners and investors we have willed it into existence.

It doesn’t mean I don’t love Sanctus or that Sanctus isn’t a huge part of my life, of course it is. It doesn’t mean I can’t live and breathe the Brand and Mission, I still can, yet the separation between James and Sanctus is clearer and more distinct, which is better for everyone.

Especially me to be honest, I put so much of myself into what I create and I still let my work define me - something I imagine I’ll work on my whole life, but it was killing me. When Sanctus was bad - I was bad. When Sanctus was good - I was good. If Sanctus fails, I am a failure. When Sanctus is successful, I am a success. That’s not good. That’s me placing my worth in something beyond me, something external that ultimately I cannot actually control. It’s ego thinking, a mind created pattern that’s often kept me safe and protected me in the past.

The work for me has been to find enough, within. Only then could I let go of Sanctus and step down as CEO. Yeah, there’s all the practical stuff and the logic that Chris is a wonderful CEO with all the aligned Vision and Values. Yet today I’m writing this on behalf of James, not Sanctus and for me it’s been an inner journey to find enough and the external result has been a pretty significant change in role in the company I started.

I was recreating an unhealthy pattern in my life all over again and one that consistently has a negative impact on my mental health. I was placing an image and expectation on my life, a projection of who I think I am and who I think should be, not letting myself be. I had a projection that I had to be a CEO, I had to be calm, considered, measured and balanced. That is who I should be, if I am not that I am bad or wrong in some way.

I felt like there were all these people telling me that I have to be the CEO, that I should be the CEO, when really it was me just making up stories in my head. For a time, Sanctus did need me there, that is true, but after a while I was resisting the change that wanted to happen out of fear.  

I was resisting myself. I wasn’t seeing myself. I was embarrassed to be honest, embarrassed that I like starting and creating things. Embarrassed that I’m not a great manager. Embarrassed that I’m not really bothered about detail or holiday pay or pay rises or strategy. Not that I don’t think they’re important, but I just have zero inclination to do them.

I was feeling a bit ashamed of.. Me.

I look at great CEOs and I am in awe. Working with Chris this year has been phenomenal, he is exceptional. The ability to empower, the quality of listening, the directness, the accountability, the gentle leadership, the balance of hard and soft skills - it’s an absolute pleasure to see in action.

And for a while I looked at myself with judgement. I’m a crap listener. I absolutely love talking about myself. I take up so much space. I think out loud and people think I’ve made a decision but really I’m just riffing. I like to be the centre of attention. I love collaborating, not managing. I change my mind every 5 minutes. I have 3 billion ideas for Sanctus and want them all to be done tomorrow. I can’t understand why everyone just doesn’t think like me or understand me.

Yet, that is me and for too long I was resisting myself.

That is me and I’m not going to jump on the self-love train and say I love myself. I love some parts of me, I don’t like others - that for me is being a human. Yet can I accept myself? Yes I can, I can try and that is the constant practice, that is the life’s work.

You might have been expecting the 5 step story of how we started working with an exceptional CEO for Sanctus. Yet this is the real story behind it, my story and it’s actually the same old story, one of believing I had to be something I’m not.

So, here’s to being me, again.

What now? That's the question I'm asking and other people seem to be too, following your heart, gut, intuition is tough and this is the reason, stepping into the unknown is scary. That's where I am though. 

I’ve had a couple of weeks off which has been my first proper break in years, it’s been difficult and I’ve felt like I’ve just lost my job (because I did let myself go). I have a book to write, a story to share and a desire to take Sanctus direct to people, not just through the workplace.

That’s all I know right now. I’ve not left Sanctus and there’ll be a period where I re-integrate with the team in a new way, I’ll let you know how that goes when I know. I’m still in the unknown a bit, I’m getting used to it down here :)

James x


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