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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.
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 Entrepreneur, a 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.
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.
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.
I recently sat through an annual CEO 360 review at a company that has been very serious about executive development since inception. It reminded me how powerful this is when it’s done correctly.
In this particular case, the entire board and management team had an hour-long facilitated discussion without the CEO in the room. The facilitator is not an employee of the company but has worked with the entire management team on executive development as they’ve grown over the past 5+ years.
This company is doing extremely well and the CEO is excellent. However, the fact that he’s comfortable enough with himself (and his team) to step out of the room and allow us (board and management) to have a candid, direct, confidential discussion is an important message to everyone.
Most interestingly to me was the value of the conversation. Even though this group has worked together for a long time, the company continues to evolve and the CEO knows he has opportunities to continue to grow. By having this type of a candid conversation across the team and the board, it creates real clarity around where the personal growth opportunities for the CEO are.
A minority of the companies I’m on the board of do this but this particular CEO 360 Review motivated me to rethink that and encourage it in more cases.
I’ve been in several board meetings over the past month where the companies are having a killer Q2. A year ago everyone was still pretty rattled from the financial crisis and there was plenty of belt tightening, consternation, and general anxiety. By Q409 we’d had a number of companies we are investors in end the year strongly and their growth has continued into Q1 and Q2.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve sat through plenty of good meetings and plenty of bad board meetings. I always try to acknowledge the efforts of individual executives when they’ve exceeded expectations and the full team when they’ve crushed it. I’m not afraid to be direct and critical and I always speak my mind, but I try never to forget to praise people for their efforts.
When I reflect on my peers, some of the best VCs I’ve worked with are amazing at acknowledging the efforts of the entrepreneurs and management teams, especially when they are dealing with complex situations. This praise isn’t gratuitous – it’s targeted, focused, and appropriate. And over the years I’ve occasionally seen it offered up at exactly the right moment.
Unfortunately, the opposite is more common. I often sit through a board meeting and watch in amazement as the VC investors socratically pick away at the management team, asking question after question but offering no substantive suggestions. If the business is having an issue, or the CEO is specifically looking to try to work through a problem, this can be helpful. But in the cases where the company has performed well, this is at best a tedious exercise in wasting everyone’s time. At worst, it’s insensitive and offensive to a management team that has performed well, especially in a tough situation. And often, it’s incredibly deflating and demotivating.
So, fellow VCs and board members, take a moment and remember that when people do a great job, it’s worth spending a moment acknowledging them. Most of the folks I’m working with are busting their asses to create real companies. They are making many sacrifices and tradeoffs to do what they do. A little pat on the back will go a long way, especially after three hours of questions.