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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.
Today’s guest post from Chris Moody, the COO of Gnip, follows on the heels of the amazing Big Boulder event that Gnip put on last Thursday and Friday. To get a feel for some of the speakers, take a look at the following blog posts summarizing talks from leaders of Tumblr, Disqus, Facebook, Klout, LinkedIn, StockTwits, GetGlue, Get Satisfaction, and Twitter.
- Transition at a Massive Scale with Ken Little of Tumblr
- From Monologue to Dialogue with Daniel Ha and Ro Gupta of Disqus
- Measuring Engagement on Facebook with Sean Bruich
- Measuring Influence Online with Joe Fernandez and Matt Thomson of Klout
- Data Science at LinkedIn with Yael Garten
- Industry-Focused Social Networks with Howard Lindzon of StockTwits
- Distributed vs. Centralized Conversations with Jesse Burros of GetGlue
- Engaging with Customers Online with Wendy Lea of Get Satisfaction
- Creating the Social Data Ecosystem with Ryan Sarver and Doug Williams of Twitter
The event was fantastic, but Chris sent out a powerful email to everyone at Gnip on Saturday that basically said “awesome job on Big Boulder – our work is just beginning.” For a more detailed version, and some thoughts on why The Work Begins When The Milestone Ends, I now hand off the keyboard to Chris.
We’ve just finished up Big Boulder, the first ever conference dedicated to social data. By all accounts, the attendees and the presenters had a great experience. The Gnip team is flying high from all the exciting conversations and the positive feedback. After countless hours of planning, hard work, and sleepless nights, it is very tempting to kick back and relax. There is a strong natural pull to get back into a normal workflow. But, we can’t relax and we won’t. Here’s why.
As a company it is important to recognize the difference between a milestone and a meaningful business result. Although it took us almost nine months to plan the event, Big Boulder is really just a milestone. In this particular case, it is actually an early milestone. The real results will likely begin months from now. All too often startups confuse milestones for results. This mistake can be deadly.
Milestones Are Not Results
Milestones represent progress towards a business result. Examples of milestones that are commonly mistaken for results include:
Getting Funded. Having someone make an early investment in your company is positive affirmation that at least one person (and perhaps many) believe in what you are trying to accomplish. But, the results will come based upon how effectively you spend the money; build your team/product, etc. Chris Sacca has tweeted a few times that he doesn’t understand why startups ever announce funding. Although I haven’t heard him explain his tweets, I assume he is making the point that funding isn’t a meaningful business result so it doesn’t make sense to announce the news to the world.
Signing a partnership. Getting a strategic partnership deal signed can take lots of hard work and months/years to accomplish. Once a partnership deal is finally signed, a big announcement usually follows. The team may celebrate because all the hard work has finally paid off. But, the obvious mistake is thinking the hard work has paid off. Getting the deal signed is a major milestone, but the results will likely be based upon the amount of effort your team puts in to the partnership after the deal is signed. I’ve never experienced a successful partnership that just worked after the deal was signed. Partnerships typically take a tremendous amount of ongoing work in order to get meaningful results.
Releasing a new feature. Your team has worked many late nights getting a new killer feature in to the product. You finally get the release out the door and a nice article runs in TechCrunch the next day. The resulting coverage leads to your highest site traffic in a year. But, have you really accomplished any business results yet? Often the results will come after lots of customer education, usage analysis, or feature iterations. If no customers use the new feature, have you really accomplished anything?
Is it okay to celebrate milestones? Absolutely! Blow off steam for a half-day or a long celebratory night. Take the time to recognize the team’s efforts and to thank them for their hard work. But, also use that moment to remind everyone that the true benefits will happen based upon what you do next.
Results Increase Value
Unlike milestones, results have a direct impact on the value of the company. Results also vary dramatically based upon different business models. Examples of common results include: increasing monthly recurring revenue, decreasing customer turnover, lowering cost of goods sold (increasing gross margin).
Announcing a new feature is a milestone because it adds no value to the company. On the other hand, having customers actually adopt a new feature might increase customer retention, which could be a meaningful business result.
The Work Begins When X Ends
When I worked at Aquent, there was a point in time when we were doing lots of tradeshows. We noticed a pattern of team members taking months to prepare for an event and then returning from the tradeshow declaring the event a success. They would put a stack of business cards on their desk and spend the next several weeks digging out from the backlog of normal work stuff. The business cards would begin to collect dust and the hot leads from the show would eventually become too cold to be useful.
In order to avoid this phenomenon, someone coined the expression “the work begins when the tradeshow ends”. This simple statement had a big impact on the way that I think about milestones versus results. Since that time, I’ve used the concept of this phrase hundreds of times to remind my team and myself that a particular milestone isn’t a result. You can substitute the word “tradeshow” for whatever milestone your team has recently achieved to help maintain focus.
The most recent example? The work begins when Big Boulder ends.
I love Paul Graham’s Maker vs. Manager schedule concept. At Feld Technologies, we used to call this “programmer time vs. phone/meeting time” and my partner Dave Jilk and I spent a lot of time figuring out how to make it work since we each had programming work throughout the life of the business but an increasing amount of phone/meeting time as our business scaled up. Near the end I was in almost 100% phone/meeting time, which I hated, but at least I knew why.
As a VC, I’ve created a very tight approach to dealing with my manager schedule. I get up a 5am every morning, read/write online until Amy wakes up (usually between 630am and 7am), go for a run, and then switch into manager mode until 6pm. I try to schedule everything (including phone calls) – I use 30 minute increments so I have lots of “air” in my schedule since many things never take more than 10 minutes. At 6pm, I either go out to a business-related dinner, hang out with Amy, or lay on the couch and catch up on email and other random stuff.
For the points in time when I need to be on a maker schedule, I go away for a week or two. To the outside world it often doesn’t seem different, except I’m not available to get together physically and I’m not traveling anywhere. But I still blog, do email, and spend time on the phone with companies we’ve invested in. However, I control the schedule tightly, usually giving myself a several hour block of time in the afternoon for this.
I’ve decided to spend the entire summer in maker mode. The first five months of the year have been intense – tons of travel, lots and lots of stuff going on, and very little time for me. I fucked myself up by doing the 50 mile run so I was more emotionally drained than normal and I didn’t really give myself time and space to recover from it. On top of it, I don’t feel like I’ve spent enough time with Amy the first half of this year, nor do I feel like I’ve had enough me time as I feel like I’ve been spending too much time doing things for other people rather than spending time on things I want to spend time on.
Through labor day, I’m not going to travel at all, except for a few marathon weekends and a few trips to Boulder for a few days. Amy and I are holed up at our place in Keystone and I’ve decided to only have a manager schedule between 1pm and 4pm each day. That leaves me from when I wake up until 1pm to be on maker time, followed by 4pm until when I go to bed.
This rhythm starts tomorrow. It’ll be interesting to see if I can hold it for the full summer given all of the other pressures on my time. It’ll also be interesting to see the external perception of my responsiveness changes at all.
Either way, I think the only real way to learn about this type of thing is to experiment, so the experiment begins now.
I get to work with a lot of great CEOs. When I reflect on what makes them great, one thing sticks out – they are always building their muscles. All of them.
As a marathon runner, I’ve got massive legs. Marathoner legs. They’ll look familiar to anyone who runs a lot. In contrast, I have a wimpy upper body. I’ve never enjoyed lifting weights. So I don’t spend any time on it.
I’d be a much better marathon runner if I worked on a bunch of other muscles as well. I’m starting to get into a swimming regimen, I’m riding my new bike around town and this summer I’ve got pilates three days a week as a goal of making it a habit. By the end of summer I hope to have a bunch of other muscles developing and a set of habits that enables me to finally maintain them.
The key phrase above is “I’ve never enjoyed lifting weights.” When asked, I say I’m bad at it. Or that I simply don’t like it. Or, when I’m feeling punchy, that jews don’t lift weights.
Of course, these are just excuses for not working on another set of muscles. If I don’t like lifting weights, surely there are things I like doing instead. I’ve always been a good swimmer – why don’t I have the discipline to go to the pool three days a week and swim? Most hotels I stay in have a swimming pool or have a health club nearby. Swimming is as easy as running – you just get in the pool and go.
“I’m bad at it and I don’t like it.” That’s what runs through my head when I lift weights. For a while, I used this narrative with swimming. But when I really think about swimming, the narrative should be “I’m ok at it and I like it.”
So why don’t I do it? I don’t really know, but I think it’s because the particular muscles I use when I swim are intellectually linked to the weight lifting muscles, which gets me into a loop of “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it.” So rather than break the cycle, I let my muscles atrophy.
Yoga is the same way. I struggle with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. It’s too fast for me, I struggle to remember the poses, and my glasses constantly fall off, and I can’t follow what’s going on. So I say “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it” and then don’t do it. But I do like Bikram Yoga. It’s slower, there are the same 26 poses, and I like the heat. So why don’t I do it? Once again, the narrative gets confused in my mind and it turns into “I don’t like yoga.”
All of this is incredibly self-limiting. Rather than fight with “I’m bad at it and I don’t like it” how about changing it to “I’m not good at it but I’m going to try new approaches and find something I like.” There are many different approaches to building a particular muscle so rather than use a one-size fits all approach (e.g. I must go lift weights, which I hate), search for a different approach that you like.
If you want to be a great CEO, you need to be constantly building all of your muscles. There are going to be a lot of areas you think you aren’t good at. Rather than avoid them, or decide you don’t like them, figure out another way to work on these muscles. You’ll be a better, and much more effective CEO as a result.