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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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It’s Your Job To Improve Your Team

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At this year’s NVCA meeting, my partner Jason Mendelson (who was the chair of the event) interviewed Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter. Dick is an awesome CEO, awesome human, and awesome interviewee. Among other things, he’s hilarious, and PandoDaily wrote a fun summary of the interview in their post What CEOs could learn from comedians.

Dick had many great one liners that fit in 140 characters as you’d expect from someone who is both the CEO of Twitter and was once a standup comedian. But one really stuck in my mind.

It’s not your job to defend your team. It’s your job to improve your team.

Upon reflection, all of the great CEOs and executives that I’ve ever worked with believe this and behave this way.

Every time I make an investment I believe it is going to be an incredible success. I don’t know any VC who invests thinking “eh – this will be mediocre. When you start the relationship you believe it’s going to be massively successful. The same is true of hiring an executive. Dick made the point that the cliche “only hire A players” is completely obvious and banal. CEOs don’t run around saying “hey – let’s hire C players – that’s what we want – C players.” Everyone you hire is someone you think will be an A player, by definition.

But, in the same way that every VC investment doesn’t become a 100x return, every person you hire won’t turn out to be an A player. After a few months, you start to really understand the strengths and weaknesses of the person. And you see how the person interacts with the rest of your team. This is normal – there’s no way you could know any of this during the interview process.

The not so amazing CEO or executive immediately falls into a mode of trying to defend the person, or the team, to the outside world (board, investors, customers) and other members of the team. I’ve heard a remarkable number of different rationalizations over the years about why a person or a team is going to work. And, when I press on this, the underlying response is often simply “give us / me / them more time.”

Instead of defending the team, the amazing CEO will respond with “yup – we need to get better – here’s what we are doing.” And then they’ll add “what else do you think we should do?” and “how can you help us improve?” This type of language – accepting reality and focusing on improving it, rather that defending it, is so much more powerful.

Of course, often the answer is that to improve a team, you have to eliminate a person or move them to a very different role. This is hard, but it’s part of the process, especially in a fast growing company. Someone who was incredible at a job when the company is 50 people might be horrible at the job when the company is 500 people. Nothing is static – including competence.

This is true of CEOs as well. We can all be better at what we do – a lot better. It’s easy to fall into the trap of defending our own behavior when someone offers us feedback or constructive criticism. The walls go up fast when someone attacks us, or we fail. But if you switch immediately from “defend” to “improve”, you can often get extraordinary feedback and help in real time. And sometimes you have to replace yourself, as Jonathan Strauss at Awe.sm did recently and explained in his tremendous post Replacing Oneself as CEO

I loved working with Dick at FeedBurner – I learned an incredible amount from him. I treasure every minute I get with him these days and one of the biggest bummers about not being an investor in Twitter is that I don’t get to work with him on a regular basis. It was joyful to listen to him and realize that there is another wave of people at a rapidly growing and very important company that are learning from him, as he works to improve his team on a continual basis.

I Am Enough

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I received a bunch of great comments and responses to my post Be Vulnerable. Several people asked if I was inspired by Brené Brown’s TEDxHouston talk in 2010. I hadn’t ever seen it so I watched it last night. After 20 minutes, it’s easy to see how it could have inspired my post – it’s absolutely wonderful. As a bonus, it’s an example of an excellent 20 minute presentation - Brené shows us how a 20 minute high concept talk is done.

I especially loved the thread on numbing vulnerability.

“We are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated cohort in US history. You can not selectively numb emotion – so we numb everything. We numb joy, gratitude, happiness. Then we are miserable. And we feel vulnerable. So then we numb. And create this vicious cycle.”

Another great segment is around making the uncertain, certain.

“I’m right, you are wrong, that’s it. There is no discourse or conversation – just blame.”

Carve out 20 minutes and give yourself the time and space to watch, listen, and think. And let yourself be vulnerable, especially to Brené’s ideas.

Be Vulnerable

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We are told that leaders must be strong. They must be confident. They must be unflinching. They must hide their fear. They must never blink. They cannot be soft in any way.

Bullshit.

Last night, after my first public talk on the new book that Amy and I just released titled Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneura woman came up to me afterwards and gave me two pieces of feedback. The first was that I expressed incredible vulnerability in my talk. She thanked me for that. She then suggested that I hadn’t done a good job of weaving the notion of vulnerability into the importance of the dynamics of the relationship that Amy and I have.

She was absolutely correct on both fronts. Amy and I allow ourselves to be very vulnerable with each other. We aren’t afraid of each other and – by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable – we are more direct, honest, and clear about what is on our minds. It works both ways – we are more able to hear the other person, and more able to offer feedback in a constructive way, because we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

But it doesn’t stop there. I’m allow myself to be very vulnerable with my partners Seth, Jason, and Ryan. And they allow themselves to be vulnerable with me and each other. We embrace the notion of “brutal honesty” with each other – we say things as we see them, as we believe them, and as directly as we can to each other – while at the same time recognizing that the other person is open to any feedback, in any tone, in any way. Notably, we are each vulnerable to each other, which makes our communication much more powerful and effective.

I try to be bidirectionally vulnerable with every entrepreneur I work with. I try my hardest, but when I hurt someone, I want to hear why. When I let someone down, I want to hear why. When I am struggling, I talk openly about it. When I’ve failed, I listen to why. And I hope that every entrepreneur I work with feels the same way, or whatever their version of “being vulnerable” is.

I’m vulnerable to the broader community I engage with. I’m open about my struggles – personally and professionally. I’m not bashful about being wrong, and owning it. And, when I get feedback, my ears are always open. Sure, I get plenty of random criticism from nameless, faceless people. That used to annoy me – now I just put them in the bucked of “anonymous coward” and delete it from my brain. If they can offer me the feedback directly, in their own voice, with their own identity, I’m open to it. I’ll let myself be vulnerable in that context. But I draw the line at random, anonymous attacks, especially ad hominem ones.

The great leaders I know are vulnerable. Maybe not to everyone, maybe not all the time, and maybe not in all contexts. But the allow themselves to be, simply, themselves. Human. They allow others in. They know they can be wrong. They know they can fail. And they know they can improve. Vulnerable.

That’s part of being a great leader. And a great partner – business or personal. And it opens you up to be a greater human. Thanks to the person who reminded me of that last night.

Book: The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time

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Verne Harnish‘s new book, The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time, is out. I’ve read the excerpt up on Fortune and I’m looking forward to reading the entire book this weekend. The short description follows:

The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time – with a Foreword by Jim Collins — is Verne Harnish’s latest book.  Author of the ever popular Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, Verne along with some of the top writers and editors at Fortune magazine, share the inside story on 18 of the most unconventional decisions ever made in business – decisions that not only changed companies, but changed industries and even nations.   Endorsed by several top CEOs and biz authors, these decisions should spark important ideas to transform your own companies and industries.  If you want a sample, download a free chapter (GE’s key decision) and read Verne’s six page Introduction.   

I’ve known Verne since 1990. A little known fact about us is that he was the only person I knew in Boulder when Amy and I moved here in 1995 (he moved to the east coast within the next year.) While we don’t spend a ton of time together these days, I have enormous respect for him as a thinker, scholar, and teacher around entrepreneurship. His company Gazelles has long been involved in helping numerous high growth companies in all aspects of their growth.

I first met Verne at the first Birthing of Giants program in 1990. I noticed an advertisement for it in Inc. Magazine. At the time I was president of Feld Technologies, my first company. We were 12 people and slightly more than $1 million in revenue. The advertisement spoke to me and I applied. I was accepted and a few months later had one of the most incredible weekends of my life with about 60 of my peers hanging out at the MIT Endicott House. It was the first time I discovered my peer group and it led to a long-term involved in Young Entrepreneurs Organization (where I founded the Boston and Colorado chapters) and planted deep seeds for my understanding of the power of mentorship.

I’ve been a huge fan of Verne’s since the day I met him in 1990. Many other amazing people were at that first Birthing of Giants event, including Ted Leonsis, Martin Babinec, and Keith Alper. I’m participating in a reunion in October in Boston – I’m very much looking forward to it. In the mean time, I’m going to reward myself for getting the publisher’s draft of Startup Life done this weekend by laying on the couch and reading Verne’s new book.

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We Versus I

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I saw an email from a CEO the other day. In it, he said “I” over and over again. There were numerous places where he referred to “my company”, “my team”, “my product”, and “my plan.”

It bummed me out. I know the people on “his team” and they are working their asses off. The company is an awesome company and the CEO is a great leader. But there was a huge amount of “we” in the effort and when I read the note, all I could think about was how demotivated I would be if I was on “his team” and heard “I I I.”

Several years ago, my partners at Foundry Group had an intervention with me where they asked me, as politely as they could, to stop using the word “I” when I referred to Foundry Group. I asked them why. Their response was simple – we were a team and every time I talked in public and said “I” instead of “we” it was demotivating. While we each have our own distinct personalities and behavior, Foundry Group is a team effort (Becky, Dave, Jason, Jill, Kelly, Ken, Melissa, Ross, Ryan, Seth, Tracie, and me) and by saying “I” my  speech and actions were undermining this.

They were completely, 100% correct.

Since that moment I’ve been very sensitized to this. I’m sure I fuck up occasionally, but I think I’ve gotten a lot better at saying “we.” Every now and then something really bizarre happens, like a national newscast where the interviewer cuts off the intro (e.g. “I’m one of the four partners at Foundry Group”) and then does a first person interview where it’s impossible not to say “I”, but I’m still trying.

If you are the CEO, recognize that there is a lot of “we” that is enabling you to be successful. Don’t get caught up in the “I” – it’s a trap that will only backfire on you over time. It’s often tough to get it right, but there’s so much power in the team dynamic when you do.

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