I Invest In CEOs Who Are Learning Machines

On my run this morning, my mind drifted to a common characteristic of CEOs that I work with. It was prompted by me randomly thinking about two back to back meetings I had yesterday – the first with Eric Schweikardt (Modular Robotics CEO) and his VP Finance and then with John Underkoffler (Oblong CEO) and his leadership team.

I’m regularly blown away by these two guys ability to collect new information, process it, and learn from it. Any meeting with them is not an endless socratic session from me to them, but rather the other way around. They know what they are trying to figure out and use me, and my broad range of experience, data, and opinions, to solicit a bunch of data for themselves that they use as inputs into their learning machine. Sure – I ask plenty of questions, but they do also, and as we go deeper, the questions – and the things that come out – get richer.

So – as I turned around on my run and headed back home (today was an out and back run), I started thinking about other learning machines that I get to work with. The ultimate is David Cohen, the CEO of Techstars. The entire model of Techstars is build around the context of the entrepreneur as a learning – and teaching – machine, where learning and teaching (which we call “mentoring”) are the different sides of the same coin.

Bart Lorang (FullContact CEO) is an awesome learning machine. While Bart isn’t a first time CEO, his level – and intensity – of inquiry is stunning. It reminds me of a younger Matt Blumberg, who has taken the concept to an entirely new level in his book Startup CEO.

I could keep going – almost of the CEOs I work with are in this category of learning machine. As I rounded the last turn and headed for home, I realized the learning machine model is consistent with a deeply held value of mine – reading and writing. More about that in another post.

  • 100%. You said it firmly. Funny I was saying something similar to a co-mentor about our team this morning, that we want to see them learn and grow, and if they don’t, it’s a red flag.

    A startup CEO needs to grow and mature, just as their company does.

  • Steve Ardire

    Should be startup teams ( not just CEO ) who are learning machines

    • I completely agree. That’s the essence of the lean startup.

    • This is critical. One of the things we do as a management team is assign 1-2 relevant book readings for each quarterly management offsite. We then debate them over dinner and drinks. Coupled with the day to day experiences, It’s been an effective way for the team to learn together.

  • HerwigK

    As a first time CEO I try to eat up as much information possible (Blumberg’s book being a godsend). But of course there is a fine line of what information is applicable to you and your unique scenario v. being applicable to all.

    • Yup – I say often “it’s only data” – it’s up to you to figure out what to do with it.

  • Wow, thanks Brad. As far as awesome learning machines go, I think you are actually Cylon #14.

    • And know you know what my “casing” looks like.

  • You’re a learning machine, Brad. That’s why you’re successful, and something I hope to emulate from you for many years.

    • Thanks Trevor. It’s the essence of what motivates me. I’ve long said that I’m intrinsically motivated by learning.

  • DaveJ

    Does it seem like it is crucial what the CEO is a learning machine *about*?

  • Awesome Investor and great teams.

  • Last year I took a great yoga teacher out for coffee, and after a 2 hour walk and talk I was blown away by the parallels as she spoke about the learning requirements to be a good teacher. Most of what makes her a good teacher isn’t about yoga, it’s about clarifying human behavior.

    Was a really interesting talk, and it made me think and change how I focus my learning. I picked up more “opinion” books, autobiographies and have benefited from it.

    It’s been rewarding, and I have been surprised how much I’ve learned from teachers, restaurateurs, social workers, etc that make me write better code and deliver better value to the user.

    It’s most surprising because 99% of targeted content, the “How to build a user experience” posts and books, rehash the same material and aren’t that helpful. They don’t add any significant depth or breadth.

    Discovering this “cross-pollenating learning” was the highlight of my 2013, applying it at a deeper level is a goal for 2014.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • HK Visa Handbook

    Brad, four years ago I decided that I really needed to learn how to make money selling a professional service via the Internet. I understood that everything I needed could be found on the web and have been astounded by how easy it all is once you have committed to the learn, implement, learn roll out model. It’s all there for the taking for free on the web, You just have to learn – and keep on learning!

  • brgardner

    Reading is great and writing is great, but when you combine the two it is 1+1=3. Some of my best learning moments come when I process what I am reading by writing. You find yourself seeing insights that you didn’t see before, and the whole picture starts coming together.

  • anne weiler

    This is probably why. http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset

    Was once coached for a pitch not to say that we’d learned so much, which is unfortunate I think. Those who do not learned from their mistakes etc etc.

    Keep up the excellent work of being real Brad. The hubris of the startup world needs you!

  • Life long learning. It’s the way of the knowledge worker age!
    Startup100M [at] ObjectMethodology [dot] com

  • brezina

    and you’ll find they apply this personality trait outside of the office as well. they are the guys that study youtube videos to improve their swimming technique. they are the women who explore cross training to improve their marathon time. they spend the weekend improving their watercolor technique at the local art studio. in fact, this isn’t just a great characteristic of a CEO, but of any high performer. It is one of the top things I look for when interviewing potential employees

  • J. Brian

    I pursued my MBA to keep myself on a steep learning curve and took an internship at JPMorgan Chase in ‘Big Data’ to keep accreting new skills. All my heroes push the reset button, are never to big to take a new opportunity head on (even if it means failure), and set stretch goals. Nice post!

  • Naresh Saklecha

    A quote from Charlie Munger who described Warren Buffett as a learning Machine in one of his speeches at the USC [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6Cy7UwsRPQ] , the Industrial revolution occurred when the method of investing was popularized so you will become a better learner when you discover the method of learning. Watch the whole series.

    • Outstanding find – thanks!

  • anne williams

    Asking questions is a great way to learn but I have found writing proves I listened well or read something effectively. Thanks for the thought.

  • Pete_0

    this isn’t just a “C-suite” criteria: for 25 years or so i’ve been doing alumni interviewing for my alma mater (yeah, one of those super-selectives with a bunch of vegetation destroying the masonry on the campus buildings…); often the bright young things (a.k.a. applicants) will ask a version of “how did XXX influence your life?” the reply I stumbled into years ago and have affirmed many times since: “it taught me how to be a life-long learner…”

  • Important and applies to anyone in a leadership position. Learning trumps knowledge. Your ability/desire to collect, process and learn new things is perhaps one of the most important predictors of success.

  • David Cohen

    i don’t understand. What the hell are you even saying? 😉

  • bwagy

    Great blog post. Couldn’t agree more.