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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’m sitting on my balcony on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking Miami Beach thinking about motivation. Specifically, mine. I’m deep into writing the first draft of Startup Communities and – with Amy – decided to plant myself in a warm place for two weeks as I finished up this draft.
We got here late Monday night. Today is the first day I wrote any words on the book. I procrastinated as long as I could and finally opened up the doc in Scrivener and started writing after my run today. I pounded out a solid hour of writing before shifting gears, responding to some email, and writing a few blog posts. I know that I can only productively write for a max of four hours a day before my writing turns into total crap so I’ll be happy with another hour today. I’ll then consider myself fully in gear for four hours tomorrow.
While I was on my run, my mind drifted to motivation. I kept repeating one of my favorite lines – “you can’t motivate people, you can only create a context in which people are motivated.” I’m pretty sure I heard that for the first time from Dan Grace when we were both working with the Kauffman Foundation in the 1990′s and it has stuck with me.
It felt particularly relevant today. There is no external force “motivating me” to write this book. I’m doing it because I want to, find it interesting, challenging, and think it’ll be a useful thing for the world. It’s a cop-out to say I’m “self-motivated” especially since my run on the beach capped off two full days of procrastination where I kept very busy on other work, but didn’t do the specific thing I came here to do. After two days in the environment that I needed to be motivated, I finally settled down and started doing the real work I had come here to do.
If you generalize this, it plays out over and over again every day. The great entrepreneurs I know work incredibly hard at creating environments that are motivating. They don’t pound away at the specific task of “motivating people”, rather they pay attention to creating context, removing barriers, being supportive, putting the right people in the room, and leading by doing. All of these things create a context in which people are motivated.
It could be as simple as a warm day on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking the beach, which I know is an ideal place for me to write. Or it could be an awesome office environment with incredibly challenging problems. Or it could be a set of people who are amazing to spend time with. In any case, the context is the driver of motivation.
Ponder that the next time someone asks “what do I need to do to motivate you?” Or, more importantly, consider it the next time you are about to ask someone “what do I need to do to motivate you?” The answer might surprise you.
Every company I’m involved in keeps track of numbers. Daily numbers, weekly numbers, monthly numbers. Ultimately, all the numbers translate into three financial statements – the P&L, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow Statement. While these numbers are sacrosanct in the accounting and finance professions, they are lagging indicators for most startup companies. Important, but they tell the story of the past, not what is going on right now.
I’ve formed a view that every young company should be obsessed about three magic numbers. Not two, not five, but three. Before I explain what those numbers are, I need to tell a story of how I got to this point.
My brain works better with numbers than graphs, so over the years I’ve conditioned most people I work with to send me numbers on a regular basis. Words are good also, but I love numbers. Early in the life of the company I request numbers daily. Some of this is for me; most of it is to try to help the entrepreneurs build some muscles around understanding the data and how to use it.
Recently, I’ve noticed a cambrian explosion of data among several of the companies I work with. The number of different numbers being tracked daily is massive. When you walk into their office there are screens full of graphs on the wall. Everyone in the company has access to the trends over time across a number of dimensions. These graphs are pretty, the numbers are dynamic, and there are often blinking lights to go along as a bonus.
A few months ago I stood in the middle of the office of a 30 person company and stared at the flat screen TVs hanging from the ceiling showing an array of graphs. I’m sure my mouth was open as I tried to process the data and make sense of it. I knew this particular company well and could reduce the number of different data points to a small set, but I was completely overwhelmed by the visual display. As I systematically looked at each of the graphs, I realized very few of them mattered much, nor where they particularly helpful in understanding what was going on in the business.
At the moment I realized these were no longer magic numbers. Instead, I was looking at wallpaper. Data porn. The entrepreneurial aeron chair equivalent of 2012. Pretty, but a bad allocation of resources. The 30 people in the room might be looking at the graphs. They might be looking at one of the graphs. But they probably weren’t seeing anything.
This particular company runs off of three numbers. Daily active users (DAU). Live publishers. Trial publishers. That’s it for now. In the future, there will be a daily transaction metric (Daily transaction revenue) that replaces trial clients. But that’s probably a quarter or two away.
I then started thinking about each company I’m on the board of. This rule of three applies. For many of the companies, DAU is one of the numbers. In others it’s daily orders. Or daily revenue. Or daily activations. Or total publishers. Or new publishers. But in every case I could reduce it to three numbers that I felt were the most important to pay attention to.
The absolute number is what matters. The trend is driven by day over day changes. If during the week (assume the week starts on Sunday) the numbers are 47, 67, 69, 72, 174, 80, 53 this prompts the question “what happened on Thursday to drive the number to 174?” If the next week the numbers are 53, 75, 214, 83, 80, 73, 45 this prompts two questions: “what caused the spike on Tuesday” and “why is the week over week trend downward?” Clearly there is seasonality within the week and there is a new high, but the overall trend going into the weekend is negative.
My brain can focus intensely on three variables like this in a business. Once I add a fourth, I have trouble figuring out the relationship between them. This doesn’t mean that the leadership and functional managers shouldn’t track and analyze the detailed data. They should. But they should realize that when they show this to everyone in the company, no one knows what to care about.
Instead, my new approach is to focus on three numbers. These three numbers should reflect “what’s going on right now in the business” and the trend of the numbers should be a predictor of what’s going on. As I think about the companies I’m involved in, I can define these three numbers in 60 seconds – they are almost always painfully obvious. Sometimes I do end up with four and have to make a choice, but I rarely end up with five.
The technology for displaying these three numbers is remarkably simple. They make this thing called a whiteboard that you can write them on. An email can go out to everyone in the company with the three numbers. That’s it.
What are your three magic numbers?
I had a great breakfast meeting at the Cambridge Marriott with Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT yesterday morning. We had never met before and I loved the conversation – his brain was bubbling with ideas that are relevant to many of the things I’m interested in, he challenged some of my thinking, and we had a deep and awesome conversation about open source hardware, makers, and MakerBot.
This morning Raj Bhargava (who recently co-founded two companies I’ve invested in – Yesware and SkedulMe) sent me a blog post by Michael titled Tip for Getting More Organized: Don’t. In it Michael makes the argument that the notion of spending time each day organizing your tasks, the concept of email folders, and the idea of productively organizing yourself is obsolete. The money quote at the end is:
“The essential takeaway is that the new economics of personal productivity mean that the better organized we try to become, the more wasteful and inefficient we become. We’ll likely get more done better if we give less time and thought to organization and greater reflection and care to desired outcomes. Our job today and tomorrow isn’t to organize ourselves better; it’s to get the right technologies that respond to our personal productivity needs. It’s not that we’re becoming too dependent on our technologies to organize us; it’s that we haven’t become dependent enough.”
I couldn’t agree more. I spent almost no time “organizing my tasks.” In fact, I no longer have a task list. I have outcomes I’m going after. They fit within a daily, weekly, quarterly, and annual tempo. The daily and weekly outcomes are dynamic – I have to think about them regularly and they change and shift around (I have new ones each day and new ones each week.) I call these my Daily P1s and my Weekly P1s (which I wrote about recently in a post titled Managing Priorities)- the daily ones are the three things I want to accomplish before I go to sleep; the weekly ones are the three things I want to accomplish each week before Monday morning.
But that’s it. I have a daily schedule that is highly structured (and managed by my assistant) so I don’t have to spend a millisecond thinking about who I need to meet with, where I need to be, or what I need to schedule for later. If you know me, you know that I just “go where my schedule tells me to.” I process all of my email with one touch, I write what I want when I want, and I have a strong conceptual hierarchy for prioritizing high interrupt things. I also stay off the phone unless scheduled – if you spend time with me for a day it’s likely that the only time I’m on the phone is with Amy to say “hi – I love you” or have a pre-scheduled call.
I love the notion of focusing on outcomes rather than organization. For as long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve been hearing about, reading, thinking about, and experimenting with different technology to be “more organized and productive.” I’m an aggressive user of whatever exists and when I reflect on where I’m at in 2012 I definitely feel like I’ve gotten to the place where I’m spending almost all of my time and energy on outcomes and achieving them, not on organizing myself.
If you are someone who spends 30 minutes or more a day “organizing yourself”, I encourage you to step back and think about what you could change and how that might shift you from focusing on organizing to working toward outcomes. It’s liberating.
A decade ago I didn’t pay much attention to the VP of HR position. Today, I view it as a key role if you are growing headcount at least 50% year over year and have more than 20 people in the company. And, title inflation notwithstanding, I prefer to call it “VP of People” since we are people after all, not “human resources” or “HRs”.
Over the past five years, I’ve had the privilege to work with a handful of amazing VPs of People. And, as several of our portfolio companies continue their incredible growth rates, I’ve been involved in recruiting a few new ones to these companies. I have three basic principles for each of them.
1. The VP of People must be part of the executive team and report to the CEO. Many companies that I’ve been involved in have viewed the VP of HR as “key recruiter and HR administrator.” This is not very useful and – in a startup that is growing quickly – dramatically under positions the VP of People as you’ll see in my next principle. If the CEO isn’t willing to have the VP of People on his executive team, I think it’s worth asking the question “why not – aren’t people the most important resource you are adding to your company?”
2. The VP of People is the go to person on the executive team for other executive team members. Every CEO I’ve ever worked with either pays too little attention or too much attention to the dynamics of the people on the executive team. This isn’t just the CEO to VP interactions – it’s the VP to VP interaction dynamics. When VP issues blow up, CEOs often lose huge chunks of time to trying to figure out how to manage through or mitigate the issues. The CEO often becomes camp counselor, parent, therapist, or bitching post. While this is a time sink, it’s also a huge emotional energy drain. The solution – the VP of People is responsible for this. The first stop of any VP – whether it is to talk about issues with another VP or the CEO – should be the VP of People. It’s the VP of People’s job to (a) help everyone work through the issues and (b) summarize what’s going on to the CEO. There will be cases where the CEO needs to get involved, but by having another executive in the mix, it focuses energy on solving the problems, rather than stacking up, or avoiding, issues.
3. The VP of People is responsible for helping everyone on the executive team, including the CEO, level up. Since I believe that life is one big video game, leveling up in your job should be the goal of everyone, especially executives in a company. This used to be called “professional development” but, like “HR”, I think it misses the broader point as I’m not just talking about professional development, but emotional, intellectual, and personal development. There is no possible way a CEO can focus on this effectively across his team. The VP of People can do this assuming he is on the executive team and is a peer with the other executives.
If you are a CEO of a fast growing company with more than 20 people, do you have a VP of People?