Confessions of a CEO

Dean Forbes, CEO, CoreHR

As a teenager, Dean Forbes was living out his boyhood dream. He was a professional footballer, a centre-half on the books of Crystal Palace and, he thought, destined to make a good living out of the game he loved. But when he was 17, his future started to look very different. He made the decision to turn his back on professional football and, instead, embarked on a career in business. Almost 25 years on, and now CEO of a company that generates in excess of £50m in annual turnover, he’s pleased with the judgement call he made. Here, Forbes discusses some of the decisions that have shaped his path to the top.

My bravest decision

The most courageous decision I ever made was when I was at KDS, a business travel booking platform. The company was struggling. It had recorded significant losses in the years after raising outside funds, so shareholders and investors were getting nervous.

On an otherwise unremarkable car journey back from a trade show, I thought we might have found an answer. One of the product team pitched an idea to me. It was such a left turn – away from the way the rest of the industry behaved. Instead of making business travellers sort through countless different screens and options, he sketched out a way in which it would be possible to build a solution that would only ask the traveller four questions – radically simplifying and improving the user experience.

This was in 2011. I was totally excited about the idea, but petrified A) that it couldn’t be done and B) that if it could be done, there was a reason it hadn’t been done before. So, I asked the team to establish how long it would take to build and how much it would cost. Part of me almost hoped that they would say it would take 25 years and an amount of money we couldn’t afford. But the guys came back and they were very excited about it.

To cut a long story short, we ended up pretty much betting the company on this tangential product strategy. It turned out well. It totally galvanised our business, gave us a true point of difference and gave us an aspirational brand. Ultimately it was the decision that led to a successful exit with American Express, which acquired the company in 2016.

My most emotional decision

The most emotionally difficult decision I ever made was also the most intellectually simple. Becoming a professional footballer was what I wanted to do all my life. I felt it was extremely likely it would happen.

When it ended at Crystal Palace, I was upset, but I wasn’t devastated. It wasn’t until I went on the road and did two or three different trials that ended badly that I started to doubt myself. One Wednesday, I sat down with my agent, and he told me that I was unlikely to make it. He said he had found me a job with Motorola that I could start on the Monday.

I cried most of the time between that time and going to work on the first day. I cried on most of my first few days at Motorola. But what I know now is that I wasn’t good enough or committed enough to have a top career in football. It was the right decision. Apart from anything else, I’ve definitely earned more money this way than I would have.

My hardest decision

The toughest decision I’ve ever taken was to part company with one of the executives who had been with me from the very beginning. We had worked together for 16 years; they were an exceptional executive and a great person who had been good for the culture. They were achieving the goals that had been laid out for them. But in January this year, I made the decision to part company with that executive and they left the business. That was the hardest decision to face up to, because of the personal connection.

The driver for the change was the fact that I became absolutely certain that to get to the next level we needed a different skillset. The person was exceptional in a certain size of company. They’re a great person, a great leader. You have a lot of fun working alongside them. So, the most successful things that occur under their leadership are the things where they’re personally involved. As a company gets bigger, people like that can only touch a certain number of projects, so you need the skills to make things successful independent of the personal touch.

I started to verbalise the decision to other board members. I listened to their reaction and watched their body language. They didn’t contest my rationale or my thinking. Often, they had come to the same conclusion themselves, which put me at ease with the decision. But it wasn’t an easy one to make.

My worst decision

I guarantee you, sometimes I make bad decisions. A while ago, a board and a set of shareholders were set on adding a certain profile of executive to a team. I didn’t feel it was necessary, I didn’t agree with the profile. In the end I got convinced otherwise and it ended in a spectacularly negative fashion. That was probably the lowest point of my career, but I learnt from it. When things appear obvious to me, I spend less time than I should helping others to come around to my way of thinking. In this case, I think I acquiesced because I subconsciously knew it would be proven to be the wrong thing to do in the end. But I should have spent the time to help everybody realise it was wrong.