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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.
I had two similar experiences last week where I heard from employees of two different companies that I’m on the board of. In each case, a senior exec said something like “I heard the board wants us to do blah.”
I was in each board meeting and the board most definitely did not say “we want the company to do blah.” Rather, in each case there was a discussion about the topic in question. In one of the cases consensus was reached quickly; in the other there was a robust discussion since two of the board members disagreed and the CEO wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Ultimately in that case as well there was consensus.
In each case I asked the executive what he’d heard back from the CEO. I got two versions of “the board had a discussion, there was a lot of disagreement, but the board wanted us to do blah.” I then asked, as non-politically as I could, “Do you think CEO wants to do that?” In both cases, the answer was “I’m not sure, but he knows the board wants that.”
I think this is a brutal communication mistake on the part of each of the CEOs. I’ve seen this many times over the past sixteen years since I stopped being a CEO and started being a board member. In each case the CEO is abdicating some responsibility for the decision. In the worst situation, the CEO is blaming the board for a decision and ultimately setting up a very negative context if the decision is an incorrect one – as in “see – I didn’t want to do this but the board did – so it’s not my fault.”
I’ve come to believe that the only real operating decision that a board makes is to fire the CEO. Sure, the board – and individual board members – are often involved in many operational decisions, but the ultimate decision is (and should be) the CEO’s. If the CEO is not in a position to be the ultimate decision maker, he shouldn’t be the CEO. And if board members don’t trust the CEO to make the decision, they should take one of two actions available to them – leave the board or replace the CEO.
In one of the cases, I asked the executive “if I told you the CEO was strongly in favor of the decision, would that impact you.” The response was a simple one: “yes – I’d be much more motivated to make sure we did it right.” I smiled and reinforced that the CEO was in fact supportive, which I think was a relief (and motivator) to this particular executive.
In my leadership experience, people really value when a leader takes responsibility for a decision, even if it turns out to be an incorrect one. CEO’s – don’t be the guy who says “the board made me do it.”
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.
For some reason I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately. In many of them I get asked similar questions, including the inevitable “what makes a great entrepreneur?” When I’m on a VC panel, I’m always amused by the answers from my co-panelists as they are usually the same set of “VC cliches” which makes it even more fun when I blurt out my answer.
“A complete and total obsession with the product”
The great companies that I’ve been an investor in share a common trait – the founder/CEO is obsessed with the product. Not interested, not aware of, not familiar with, but obsessed. Every discussion trends back toward the product. All of the conversations about customer are really about how the customer uses the product and the value the product brings the customer. The majority of the early teams are focused entirely on the product, including the non-engineering people. Product, product, product.
And these CEO’s love to show their product to anyone that will listen. They don’t explain the company to people with powerpoint slides. They don’t send out long executive summaries with mocked up screen shots. They don’t try to engage you in a phone conversation about the great market they are going after. They start with the product. And stay with the product.
When I step back and think about what motivates me early in a relationship with an entrepreneur, it’s the product. I only invest in domains that I know well, so I don’t need fancy market studies (which are always wrong), financial models (which are always wrong), or customer needs analyses (which are always wrong). I want to play with the product, touch the product, understand the product – and understand where the founder thinks the product is going.
I don’t create products anymore (I invest in companies that create them), but I’m a great alpha tester. I’ve always been good at this for some reason – bugs just find me. While my UX design skills are merely adequate, I’ve got a great feel for how to simplify things and make them cleaner. Plus I’m happy to just grind and grind and grind on the product, offering both detailed and high level feedback indefinitely.
How a founder/CEO reacts to this speaks volumes to me. I probably first noticed this when interacting with Dick Costolo at FeedBurner when I first met him. I am FeedBurner publisher #699 and used it for my blog back when it was “pre-Alpha”. I had an issue – sent firstname.lastname@example.org a note – and instantly got a reply from Dick. I had no idea who Dick was, but he helped me and I quickly realized he was the CEO. Over the next six months we interacted regularly about the product and when he was ready to start fundraising, I quickly made him an offer and we became the lead investor in the round. My obsession with the product didn’t stop there (as Eric Lunt and many of the other FeedBurner gang can tell you – I still occasionally email SteveO bugs that I find.)
I can give a bunch of other examples like FeedBurner, but I wrap up by saying that I’m just as obsessed with product as the founders. And – as I realize what results in success in my world, I get even more obsessed. Plus, I really like to play with software.
Sometimes a person says one sentence that just sticks with you and is so perfect that it defines a whole category of behavior. Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga, riffed on the phrase “be the CEO of your job” in a board meeting a year or so ago. It stuck with me and I’ve thought about it many times since.
On Sunday, the NY Times did a great “Corner Office” interview with Mark titled Are You a C.E.O. of Something? Among other things it explored the idea of being the CEO of your job. Fred Wilson – also an investor in Zynga – wrote a post on Sunday titled Empowering Your Team which talks about one aspect of this. But Fred left out a great example from one of Mark’s earlier companies (Support.com) which really nails this concept.
“We had this really motivated, smart receptionist. She was young. We kept outgrowing our phone systems, and she kept coming back and saying, “Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system.” And I said: “I don’t want to hear about it. Just buy it. Go figure it out.” She spent a week or two meeting every vendor and figuring it out. She was so motivated by that. I think that was a big lesson for me because what I realized was that if you give people really big jobs to the point that they’re scared, they have way more fun and they improve their game much faster. She ended up running our whole office.”
Think about the conceptual progression. First, the CEO (Mark) had to have to courage to make the young, motivated, smart receptionist “be the CEO of her job.” Then, when the problem was put to him (“Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system”), Mark resisted doing something so many entrepreneurs (and executives, and managers) do – namely to “manage” the problem. Instead of spending a lot of his time solving the problem, or setting up a committee to spend a month figuring out the phone system, or asking someone more senior to the receptionist to figure it out, he gave her the responsibility of solving the entire problem. He anointed her “CEO of her job” – as the receptionist, she was the one that felt the most pain from the inadequate phone system and was probably in the best position to figure out a solution.
In this case, the notion of “be the CEO of your job” was in the culture of the organization so the receptionist – who was in Mark’s words young, motivated, and smart – took this seriously, spent real time figuring out the solution, and then solved it. I’m sure the early culture of Support.com was “don’t spend a lot of money” so the financial constraint, while vague, was probably understood. While there’s plenty more behind the scenes in the story, the young reception clearly “leveled up” (it’s impossible not to use game-speak when talking about Zynga) and ended up running the whole office.
I work with CEO’s every day. So I’m naturally wired to encourage them to be CEO of their own job. While this is pretty meta, it’s an important starting point as I already think this way all the time. I’m certainly not perfect and have moments where I just jump in and try to solve a specific problem, but most of the time I let the CEO’s be CEO. However, when I contemplate this, I realize I haven’t done a good job of encouraging the CEO’s to make everyone in their organization CEO of the job. Some CEO’s do this naturally and – not surprisingly – these are generally the highest achieving companies.
Pause and ponder the idea. Assuming you are in an entrepreneurial organization, are you being the CEO of your job? Is this culturally (and functionally) acceptable? Do you get rewarded for taking risks and succeeding (or failing) like your CEO does? If not, would you be more effective if you did?
Now, if you are the CEO of an entrepreneurial organization, do you encourage everyone in the company to be CEO of their job? Is this culturally (and functionally) acceptable? Do they get rewarded for taking risks and succeeding (or failing) like you do? If not, would they be more effective if they did?
If you applied the lens of “be the CEO of your job” to you job, would you behave any differently?