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Recently I had a full day of meetings with chaotic juxtapositions of people.
In one meeting, the person I interacted with was awesome. He owned everything that was going on in his company – good and bad. He was clear minded. He knew what was working, what wasn’t working, and what he needed to change. And he took responsibility for it.
Immediately after, I had a non-scheduled conference call to try to get something wrapped up. It was a total waste of 15 minutes of time where the person on the other end simply refused to take responsibility for something that should have been easy for them to take responsibility for. After 15 minutes of back and forth, it was clear that the other person had no interest in taking responsibility for something I thought he should. And he couldn’t make the case for why, other than “because I don’t want to.”
I eventually gave up.
I then switched to a call with a CEO who was exploring something new. She asked a series of clear and direct questions, knowing that it was her responsibility to make a decision about what to do. It was easy to be on the receiving end of a series of challenging questions as she tried to get as much data as she could out of me as she formulated her point of view. Whatever decision she makes will be fine with me – it’ll be a thoughtful one that she owns.
After a long day, I came home to an inbox with 200 emails in it. I spend two hours grinding through them. As I was reading, responding, and archiving, I started noticing that many of the strong CEOs I work with owned whatever was going on at their company. There was simplicity in this – no blame, no excuses, no justification. They just took ownership.
While there were lots of other emails where the person owned whatever was going on, there were many situations where this wasn’t the case. This was especially true with a few entrepreneurs struggling to raise money, or asking questions about situations they had gotten themselves into, such as a poor allocation of equity to co-founders, where a co-founder had left, but there hadn’t been any vesting. While more obvious in situations where things weren’t working, this was also true in situations where there was ambiguity around what was going on.
When I step back and ponder this, the CEOs I respect the most are the ones who take responsibility for the actions of their company. Good or bad, successful or not, they don’t shirk any responsibility, blame anyone, or try to make excuses. They just own things, and if they need to be fixed, they fix them.
What kind of CEO are you?
I spent the last few days at CEO Bootcamp – Leadership Reboot. It’s run by my close friend Jerry Colonna with an awesome team of four. The next one is going to be in Tuscany, Italy from 6/4/14 – 6/8/14 and I expect it will be amazing. I encourage you to explore it and apply – the deadline for applications is 4/20/14. I arrived at Devil’s Thumb Ranch on Wednesday afternoon.
The first evening was a wonderful dinner and introduction to each other (about 20 of us) along with an evening session with a taste of what was to come. I attended as a special guest (I’m the only non-CEO / entrepreneur here) but participated as a peer.
Thursday was extremely intense with the focus on what a CEO does and the five challenges of a CEO. Everyone opened up, the discussion was incredible, and emotions were high, and yes, there were tears, as one of Jerry’s superpower’s is getting the tears to flow.
If you need a taste of Jerry and haven’t seen him in action before, the following TWIST Interview on The 6 Biggest Mistakes Founders Make is dynamite. By Thursday evening, we were deep into it. Some people were tired (I ended up taking a nap for 90 minutes during the late afternoon break), others were confused, and some were inspired. A word that was repeated regularly was grateful. Grateful to be with peers. Grateful to realize one wasn’t alone. Grateful to be able to be human in the midst of a group of other entrepreneur/CEOs.
A magical thing happened after Thursday dinner. The gang from Playback Theatre West came and spent two hours with us. I’d experienced Playback Theatre West last year at Boulder Startup Week. I was one of the stories they performed – I shared my story of moving to Boulder with Amy and they re-enacted it – interpreting things in real time – magnificently. Since I knew what we were in for, I knew that once things started happening the collision of improv and entrepreneurship would be a wonderful capstone to the day.
After a warm up, Rebecca asked for volunteers. Sam, who had been with us all day (as he’s one of the CEO Bootcamp founders as well as a member of Playback Theatre West), was one of the actors.There was a lull – everyone was unsure what to do next. So I stood up and went first.
When I stood up, I had no idea what story I was going to tell, so there was some meta-improv going on. By the time I sat down next to Rebecca to start telling my story, I decided I’d tell the story of my 50 mile race. The emotional fallout from the race, which I only mildly understood two weeks after I finished it, has had a profound impact on how I’m currently living my life given the deep depression that set in for me about seven months after the race and then lasted six months.
I told the story of the race. Rebecca and the gang asked questions along the way, pulling out pieces of my motivation for the race, along with the implications of the race. Some of the questions were simple, like “Why”, but set me off on a tangent that had nothing to do with the race. Then I sat back and watched them perform for five minutes. I laughed. And then I laughed some more. And then I had tears in my eyes. And then a wave of emotion flowed over me as I made a connection to something I hadn’t realized before. And then I settled down and smiled as they tied together some threads around my own motivations that had eluded me.
They did several more performances for different CEOs in the room including one about a hiring story that was happening and was unresolved and one about starting a company. Each was a hilarious and absolutely beautiful interpretation of the story told. After a super heavy and intense day, it was a perfect way to wrap things up. To realize we are all humans, by acting out the reinterpretation of our human stories.
I’ve become a huge fan of Playback Theatre West. I hope to do a lot more with them in the future.
I saw a great job title this morning when I was looking someone up on LinkedIn. It was “CTO Whisperer.”
As I’m getting deeper into meditation. I hear the word “teacher” a lot. I’d never thought much about it before, but it’s used in a similar way to how we use the word “mentor” at Techstars. When we started to use the word mentor in 2007, it required defining. Now mentor is getting overused by the broad entrepreneurial landscape. I have no idea whether teacher is overused as well, but the parallel got me thinking about the idea of a CEO Whisperer.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of The Horse Whisperer or a Dog Whisperer. A person who has a special, magic skill that certain animals respond to. A unique ability to calm and teach. A style about them that is unique, loving, and kind, even in difficult circumstances.
As I was mulling this over, my friend Jerry Colonna popped into my mind. While Jerry is referred to as a CEO coach, he most certainly is a CEO Whisperer. And for those who don’t know Jerry’s past, he was an extremely successful venture capitalist, founding Flatiron Partners with Fred Wilson in the mid-1990s before retiring from venture capital in the early 2000′s.
I count Jerry as a very close friend. As a mentor. As a teacher. And, with all great mentor / teacher relationships, we learn from each other. Which led me back to the idea of a CEO Whisperer.
In the 1990′s, Jerry and I worked together on several investments and were on a few boards together. Our styles were very complementary – we both had a soft touch and were supportive of the CEO, but had different things we could help with. I know that my involvement on these boards deeply shaped my role and approach as a board member and investor, as I thought Jerry was the best board member I’d ever worked with at that point in time.
I’ve met – and worked with – a few other people who I’d consider CEO Whisperers, but none compare to Jerry. And when I think about how I want to be viewed by the CEOs I work with, the idea of mentor and teacher immediately comes to the forefront of my mind.
The world of entrepreneurship needs more CEO Whisperers. Thanks Jerry for leading the way. On multiple fronts.
I’m on the receiving end of phone calls and video conferences with CEOs all day long. And, at least once a day, I can feel the intense stress on the person I’m talking to oozing through the phone or the screen. The conversation is often calm and rational, but below the surface is a bubbling cauldron of pressure.
Welcome to life as a CEO of a fast growing startup. Every day something new and unexpected comes at you. Often multiple things. Some are awesome. Some are ok. Some are bad. And some are awful.
Ben Horowitz wrote what I think is the best post ever on this called The Struggle. After I read it, I asked him if I could include it in my book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. He graciously said yes, so I did.
I felt The Struggle regularly when I was running Feld Technologies in the 1980s. I put myself at a disadvantage – when something went wrong people often called for “Mr. Feld.” My partner Dave carried a lot of the burden as well so I wasn’t alone, but I was on the receiving end of a lot of unhappiness over the years.
While I got better at compartmentalizing it, I never mastered it. I still struggle with it today. I can absorb an enormous amount of stress from the CEOs I work with. But sometimes I get overloaded and end up far out on a deep tree limb trembling with anxiety. I like to refer to this as “inappropriate anxiety” because I know exactly what is at the root cause, but my obsessive mind has a difficult time letting it go.
So I do what I can. I talk to Amy. I walk Brooks the Wonder Dog. I take a bath. I try to sleep a little more. I run more. I let the obsessive thoughts roll around in my head, chasing each other like characters from SpongeBob SquarePants.
And sometimes I just go in a closet and scream for a little while. I let all the bad energy out. I put my all into it – expelling the stress. Trying to reset my mind. Knowing that the inappropriate anxiety will go away and I’ll feel ok again.
When I hear this in the voice of a CEO I’m working with, I offer up myself as a release valve. While I don’t invite it, I want them to know they can vent to me. That they can bare their soul safely to me. That I won’t judge them on the pressure they are under. That I won’t try to solve the problem for them.
But that I’ll be there.
And I let them scream if they want to.
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.