Expectations are demons. Those burdened with expectations are forced to play into them, a process that can corrupt even the clearest visionary.
Such was the predicament facing David Jepson, who after seven years on the corporate ladder took over as CEO of CEO Magazine. Yes, it’s a job that writes all its own jokes; Jepson heard them all. It also comes with its fair share of expectations, none of which seem particularly concerning.
“When I started the role, a lot of people were like, ‘What’s the vision?'” In my head, I was thinking, “I have no idea,” Jepson says. “All I knew was that we had a great brand, a great business model and some really great people, and we had to move forward.”
The role of the CEO has evolved. No longer the cigar-chewing king sitting in a huge rooftop office or a Mr. Burns-style autocrat, today’s successful CEO must be as transparent, accountable and empathetic as any of them.
The success of these executives is not the same as in past decades. There is a much more concerted effort to satisfy not only the bottom line, but also the soul.
From a very early age, the responsibility to lead fell on Jepson’s shoulders. “When I was 10, my family became foster care. These kids came from troubled backgrounds, they were looking for role models, and I was the biggest,” Jepson recalled.
“I carried that for the rest of my life. But I didn’t choose it,” he is quick to point out. “It’s not an ego thing, and it still isn’t today.”
Authentic to a fault
As a young man trying to find his feet in the hectic world of legal recruiting, Jepson discovers an important and effective tool that will serve him well on the road ahead. “When you’re 21 and you’re trying to sell recruitment opportunities to senior partners in a law firm earning millions of pounds a year, it’s very intimidating,” he says.
“What ended up working for me was just being authentic. I wasn’t trying to act like I knew more than I did. I sat down in front of these guys and said, “If you pick me, I’ll work harder than anybody else.”
Authenticity would become familiar to Jepson throughout his career. Through success or hardship, it was never far away – for better or for worse. Jepson was the first to join CEO Magazine as a media manager in 2013, but it wasn’t long before ambition and authenticity collided.
“We started with a team of five in the Stockholm office,” he says. “We had an amazing group dynamic, so we were making money and growing as a team.”
When the first promotion came, however, Jepson’s authenticity took a different turn. “I was told that one of the big reasons I didn’t get the part was that while everyone else was coming into the office in suits, I was in a T-shirt.”
While authenticity can open doors, others are locked to all but those willing to play the game. “I wasn’t mature enough to understand that at the time,” says Jepson. “Sometimes you have to compromise and choose your priorities.”
The passing came as a blow, especially given Jepson’s proximity to CEO Magazine Co-founder (and then CEO), Chris Dutton.
“I felt personally hurt,” he says. “It actually made me resign a few months later. But it was a pivotal moment in my personal development. I learned that business is not personal. So I was able to take the personal stuff out of things and instantly stopped worrying about whether people were interested in me or not.”
Learning through persistence
After deciding to stick with the company, Jepson branched out. “We had an office in the Philippines, but I knew we had to be in Singapore,” he says. Without any presence on the field, Jepson arrived in Singapore and started from scratch.
“The first six months—getting a team together, setting up the process—were really difficult,” he says. “But in a few years, we went from nothing to the biggest revenue driver in the company.”
Wins like this – and in the following months further success in revamping the Australian and European divisions – boosted Jepson’s reputation within the company; he soon became global sales director. “A lot of business leaders struggle with building a structure that can’t survive without them because they need to feel like they’re the boss,” he says. “But this approach allowed me to build sustainable business units and therefore continue to move quickly up the company ladder.”
Carrying the twin standards of determination and proven success, Jepson was at the top. However, his next post would halt that momentum.
“Our first expedition to the United States was a bit of a disaster,” he recalls. “There’s so much competition in this market, so we decided to get as strong as possible worldwide and then do the United States when we’re ready.”
But the American competition proved overwhelming in an incredible way. “The not-so-big guys were a problem; there were so many small, low-quality publications that ran a business model similar to ours. A lot of things went wrong.”
After all, the New York office of CEO Magazine closed. But failure in business is inevitable. It is how one uses loss that decides whether the next chapter is another failure or success. “This is going to sound really cliché, but you learn more from your failures than your successes,” says Jepson.
“And I think it’s important as a leader to be able to talk openly, admit your mistakes and then show that you understand them and how you’ve learned from them.”
Despite the setbacks, the team still managed to achieve global sales targets. This gave Jepson the foundation from which to make his play for the role of CEO, a longtime dream.
“Ever since I started in business, I’ve always wanted to be a CEO,” he says. “Everything I did was to move into that seat.”
Embrace the transformation
The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be the catalyst for then-CEO Dutton to hand over the keys. “Chris saw that I had the energy and determination that it would take to get us through this particular time,” says Jepson, who became CEO in June 2020.
“A lot of people asked me if it was a good time to do it, but for me the pandemic was a mandate for change. We were able to go from print to digital printing, which would have been difficult otherwise.”
Jepson’s intimate knowledge and belief in the product, built up over his years in sales, enabled him to successfully make the case for what he believed to be an inevitable transformation.
“I knew the print product was beautiful, but I could see all the doors digital would open for us. This is the way the world is going.”
The newly hatched CEO found further confidence when he appointed Sanjeev Agrawal as the company’s CFO. “Sanjiv became a mentor,” he says. “These first six months I was frantically trying to figure out how to be a CEO in the world of COVID-19, but Sanjeev’s guidance allowed me to make some right changes.”
One of them was creating greater opportunities for people in the company. “People need to feel like they can step up and grow, because if they don’t, they’re going to leave.” I have always told my direct reports, “I will never be in your way because I am always moving and if I am not moving, I am gone.”
Fortunately, Jepson is in an industry that moves as fast and often as he does. Despite the earlier failure in New York, CEO Magazine has now returned to the United States after a successful launch in Latin America.
“We knew we had to launch in the United States because it’s the biggest market by far. It’s also the biggest challenge, so I took it upon myself to be here,” Jepson explains.
Here is Phoenix, Arizona where CEO Magazine founded its second incarnation in the United States. “The business opportunities – revenue-wise, brand-wise – are huge, and the west is very attractive because of what’s there and who’s there,” he says.
An ambitious vision
And what about the vision? Although one already exists, it is not static. “It’s changed in the two and a half years since I’ve been doing the job,” says Jepson.
“I think instead of sticking to a vision, I tried to stick to my personal values instead. To be open and inclusive, to not be afraid of failure and to be ambitious. We are the best executive storytellers in the world; there’s no reason we shouldn’t be up there with the likes of Forbes. They did it, we can do it. We are much more than just a magazine.”
What sets CEO Magazine What’s more, Jepson believes, is that he lacks a program. “Many established media platforms present stories through a prism. When there’s that ulterior motive, I think that’s a problem.
In contrast, CEO Magazine has the freedom to simply tell stories from the business world. “What I want – and what we are – is an open forum for executives to share their goals, ambitions and ways of thinking without being judged,” he says. “We shouldn’t say one way is right, our content should provoke people to think and offer different perspectives. It’s up to our readers to decide what they think is right.”
The marriage of company and ambition is the beginning of great success, but how this is achieved is not always clear. Even now, Jepson understands that the CEO doesn’t—and can’t—have all the answers. And that’s OK.
“This is my first executive role. I don’t always make the right decisions. What I can do is make decisions for the right reasons. That’s all anyone can ask of you.
Filmed on location in Santa Monica Park.