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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.
This first appeared in my LinkedIn Today column titled Give Before You Get. I post unique content on LinkedIn a few times a month (I ultimately reblog it here) but if you want to get it when I first publish it and you are a LinkedIn member, simply follow me on LinkedIn.
As 2013 begins, I encourage you to adopt one of my deeply held beliefs, that of “give before you get.”
I’ve lived my adult working life – first as an entrepreneur, next as an angel investor, and now as a venture capitalist and a writer – using this credo. It’s a core tenant of the Boulder Startup Community, which I discuss extensively in Startup Communities: How To Build an Entrepreneur Ecosystem in Your City. And it’s at the heart of how I live my personal life and is part of the glue that holds together the awesome relationship I have with my wife Amy Batchelor.
In order to give before you get, adopt a philosophy of helping others without an expectation of what you are going to get back. It’s not altruistic – you do expect to get things in return – but you don’t set up the relationship to be a transactional one.
In a business context, my favorite example of this is the difference between a mentor and an advisor. The word “mentor” has become very popular and trendy recently, yet few people really understand what it means, and many mentors are actually advisors. To understand the difference, here’s an example. An advisor says “I’ll help you with your company if you give me 1% of the equity” or “I’d be happy to spend up to a day a month advising you if you give me a retainer of $3,000.” A mentor says, simply, “how can I help?”
As a partner at Foundry Group, I interact with hundreds of entrepreneurs each week. I’m an investor in a few of their companies, but many of the people I intersect with are entrepreneurs whose company I’m not currently invested in. While a few of these companies are potential investments, the vast majority of them are companies I won’t end up being an investor in. Yet I try to be helpful to everyone who crosses my path, even if it’s an answer to a simple question, feedback on their product, or simply a response to their email that what they are working on isn’t something I’d be interested in investing in. Sure, I’m not perfect at this, but the number of entrepreneurs who have helped me in some unexpected way because of my approach to them dwarfs the energy I’ve “given.”
I believe that I’m playing a very long term game in business, and that my actions today will impact me in 20+ years. I feel the same way about my non-work life. My goal is to life as happy an existence on this planet as I can and, by giving before I get, I maximize my chance of this.
As you begin 2013, consider adopting a give before you get approach. It might surprise you what you’ll get!
I’ve started a new category on my blog called “Best Practices.” These are going to be posts inspired by my experiences with various companies that I feel are above and beyond the normal activities you’d expect. The first one comes from Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path. Earlier this week the board received an email from him that included the following:
“Although [our CFO] approves my expenses in our accounting system, inspired by Mark Hurd, I decided it would be a good idea to add a level of transparency to you in terms of my expenses.
To that end, I’m doing two things:
- I’ve asked our auditors to include some analysis/testing of my expenses in this year’s audit
- Attached, please find a spreadsheet which details all expenses, with a summary tab that has the overall picture and a few explanatory notes
Trash or treasure, as they say, but please feel free to ask any questions or poke any holes you’d like. I can assure you that I’m pretty disciplined about expenses (both in terms of not being profligate and in terms of not abusing company money for personal use), but I did think it would be good housekeeping for you to have visibility.”
To a person, we responded that while unnecessary, this was a nice gesture of transparency. The spreadsheet that Matt sent around had every expense item he was reimbursed for in the year. The summary was helpful for putting it all in perspective, but I could look and see where (and with whom) Matt ate dinner, which hotels he stayed in, how much he paid for plane flights, and what he charged to the company as miscellaneous expenses.
I thought about it more and decided it was an awesome display of trust. I have immense respect for Matt, his leadership, and his management skills. But more than that, I’d go to the ends of the earth to do anything for him. Unilateral, unexpected gestures like this one just reinforces that for me. So, more than just transparency, this best practice increases the level of trust between a CEO and his board.