Negative Maintenance

I had a fun email exchange with an investor I’ve worked with for almost 20 years in response to something a CEO send out from a board we are both on. I said “fucking awesome.” He said “that’s an understatement.” I said “CEO is such a delight.” He said “CEO is negative maintenance.”

I loved this. So I’m going to use this post to think through the idea out loud and I’d love your feedback since it’s still a messy / blurry concept in my mind.

My hypothesis is that the opposite of high maintenance is not zero maintenance but rather it’s negative maintenance.

There are days that I’m high maintenance. Everyone is. But if you subscribe to my “give before you get”, or #givefirst, philosophy, you are constantly contributing more than you are consuming. I’ve talked about this often in the context of Startup Communities, but I haven’t really had the right words for this in the context of leadership, management, and employees in a fast growing company.

Suddenly I do. When I think about my role as an investor and board member, I’m often tangled up in complicated situations. I’ve often said that every day something new in my world gets fucked up somewhere. This used to be distressing to me, but after 20 years of it, if I don’t know what the new fucked up thing is by 4pm, I start to get curious about what it’s going to be.

We all know that creating companies from nothing is extremely difficult. The problems that arise come from all angles. Some are exogenous and some are directly under your control. Some are random and some are obvious. Some are compounded by other problems and mistakes, resulting in what my father taught me at a young age was the worst kind of mistake – one that was a mistake compounded on a mistake compounded on a mistake – which he called “a complicated mistake.”

Personally, when I find myself in a complicated mistake, I stop. I step back and pause and reflect. And then I try to figure out how I can change the dynamic into something positive, not continuing to build on my complicated mistake, but instead getting clarity on what the right thing is to do to get out of the ditch.

Negative maintenance people do this. I’ve seen, been involved in, and made some epic mistakes. The CEO I’m referring to above has a great company, but has also experienced some epic mistakes. How he handles them, works through them with his team, and his board, is exemplary. There is work involved by me and the other board members, but it’s not inappropriately emotional. It’s not high maintenance. It’s just work. Decisions have to be made and executed. And there are impacts from these decisions, which lead to more decisions. Ultimately this CEO is putting energy into the system as we work through the issue, which is where the negative maintenance (as opposed to high maintenance) behavior pattern arises.

I like this idea of negative maintenance people. I’m obviously trying to think it through out loud with this post, so weigh in and help me understand it better.

  • Jo T.

    Net giving is awesome. Net taking is sometimes needing. Knowing how to balance both is key, but changes over time and undulates. True wisdom is hard to find!

  • I think that another characteristic of negative maintenance people involves completeness of deliverables. As an example, when delivering something to a co-worker or other person downstream from their work, they put enough thought into what the recipient will need to make full use of it so that it’s complete and reasonably usable on the receiving end. A long time ago when I was running a software and product marketing organization inside a company, I tried to instill this into the teams. It’s along the lines of having empathy for your co-worker, colleague, board member, etc. I’d say it’s similar to the need for having empathy for your customer which leads to delivering what people really need.

  • Carson Kahn

    @bfeld:disqus You know the adage “reality divided by expectations equals happiness?” High-maintenence people always hold expectations of others; low-maintenence people don’t. Negative-maintnence people hold expectations of themselves—about how they should treat others.

  • I understand the idea. I just don’t like the choice of word for negative maintenance but I’ll go along anyway to clear up the idea. A high maintenance person would mean there needs to be a lot of put to get X outcome. A low maintenance person would need less efforts but will result in the same X outcome.

    Now for a negative maintenance person, he doesn’t expend energy. Instead, he produces positive results (such as in X outcome) instead of consuming energy/attention/time from other people (which is maintenance). I think this clears it up for me.

    Maintenance means “the process of maintaining or preserving someone.”

    Negative maintenance would imply surplus production of maintaining or preserving someone or thing.

    • lksugarman

      To build on this, a negative maintenance person doesn’t only achieve positive results (X outcome), s/he achieves X+n outcome, by learning and applying the new knowledge. Thus, every learning experience means a more efficiency, smoother functionality, better communication, etc.

  • Great article to read on a Friday afternoon, especially when I’m already in reflection mode. I’ll spitball a few ideas on high / zero / negative maintenance.

    In your example, the CEO demonstrates the ability to manage: 1) up to the board, 2) down or across the org to drive the solution, and 3) the process to solve the problem.

    If the CEO fails at any of these steps, you definitely get high maintenance. If the CEO succeeds at three, at worst, you would have zero maintenance.

    But for negative maintenance, the CEO would do all the above, but also evaluate the risks and objections from key stakeholders over time (yesterday, today, tomorrow) and in relation to each other.

    This last step is probably where your #givefirst (or empathetic leadership) concept is critical. Active empathy: 1) demands that exact type of stakeholder / system thinking, and 2) creates a culture of reciprocation. When the shit hits the fan, those are two extraordinarily strong levers you can pull to solve the problem.

  • JDcarlu

    I like to believe in the existence of a symbiotic relationship.The negative maintenance lives in the existence of a culture of #givefirstgetlater. The CEO knows he is in the same work culture as his board/team and they feed each other with up/down flows of it.

  • Sounds like when you’re dealing with this CEO, you’re actually the one thats being maintained… 😉

    • Rick

      Hmm… That’s sound correct.

  • Kenny Fraser

    Love the concept of negative maintenance. Sounds like you are talking about more than just getting stuff done. I used to work with a colleague who had this amazing ability to clarify and focus a difficult situation in a sentence or two. Key things are No1 to know when to stop digging No2 to see what is real and needs fixing and what is just emotion and/or politics that are confusing the situation. As with all great leadership talents, personal skills are invaluable as well. In this case timing is everything. Too soon and people feel bruised by not having emotional space. Too late and the problem has broken the relationships involved. Links back to the principle of being Direct as well as #givefirst.

  • Sean Wise

    Love the concept.

    When we seed fund a first time founder, I try to explain that they need to be proactive in communications, particularly requests. I suggest they should pull our resources to address potential issues as needed and not wait until we spot a problem and volunteer the resources. All it needs is a tight definition. What about……

    Negative Maintenance, adjective,
    A person, place or thing that not only requires no attention (see Zero Maintenance) but which actually frees up attention bandwidth for other matters.

    e.g. Bill is a great CEO, he is so proactive that he’s negative maintenance, by the time he raises a problem he is already halfway through finding solutions.

    • Rick

      You’re seeding first time founders?! How far along are the companies in that situation?

      • Sean Wise

        MVP only.

  • Do they make cars like that?

  • Negative maintenance has a connotation to me that means zero attention or interaction. I find that when I work with people that are “negative maintenance” people, our gears simply mesh well. Both of us are communicative in the right way (choosing the right words and way to say it, and listening actively) so that any potential problem in the future is eliminated.

  • ClankDotCom

    If you were given these same words everyday and everyday your job was to keep them arranged in that order after they have been moved by a continual stream of input. Adding one word occasionally ,that is what I consider Negative Maintenance Entrepreneurship
    Foundry Group

  • Brad –

    I saw a software tool advertised recently that claims to improve interactions between management and board members. Have you used board management software? Does the software make boards more productive, efficient, etc.?


  • Maybe that is the Unicorn of startup CEOs.

    I think I can guess who that CEO is, and he’s quite experienced and running a maturing startup. Not sure it can still be called a startup, right?

    Until a startup is on a straight path of repeatability and growth, and has an experienced CEO at the helm, you will probably not get negative maintenance for a while.

  • DaveJ

    Also known as “being a grownup.”

  • lksugarman

    I attended The Luncheon Society this week where John Dean, Nixon White House counsel spoke and answered questions about his newest book “”The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It” that clearly confirms that Nixon was the ringleader of Watergate.

    That Nixon was a high-maintenance “CEO” goes without question. So, what’s the obverse? Honesty, integrity, transparency, alignment, self-awareness, a sense of responsibility, fearless decision-making.

  • Rick

    “Personally, when I find myself in a complicated mistake, I stop. I step back and pause and reflect.”
    My father used to suggest that same thing. Take a break and “rethink” the situation.
    But I’m not seeing any clear picture with regard to the negative maintenance from your post. Maybe it’s just me or maybe you’ll need a re-post or second draft of the concept. Sorry I couldn’t help.

  • So true. There are some CEOs who, when faced with a problem, think about it, come up with potential solutions, and get the right people involved at the right time, including the board. They get advice and then make a decision, in the best interest of the company, while communicating appropriately with their team and the board. Just doing this is not an easy feat because it requires getting everyone on the same page, and we know that there are some people (i.e. board members) who are notoriously difficult. These are negative maintenance because they make the decision making process easier, and they don’t take as much of a toll on you (aggravation, anger, time wasting, …) so you can devote your limited time and resources to the next big problem. So, not only is the process streamlined and decision making easier, but you also feel good and energized for the next issue you will have to face.

    On the other hand you also have some CEOs who, probably because of lack of experience or thoughtfulness, or sometimes because of hidden agendas, go to their board to get validation and approval on decisions that should not be board issues, or fail to represent all sides of the problem. This often leads to surprises, chaos, a lot of wasted time and effort in making decisions that could have been made in a different way. And the CEO starts accumulating negative credits. And if you get to a point where the CEO accumulates too many negative credits, then the next problem to solve is the CEO itself.

  • Brian Kellner

    I think of negative maintenance people as those people who always come with options or solutions. When someone comes to a situation that way, I feel like they have actually taken away some of the problem – so it feels like negative maintenance.

  • Joseph Jones

    Zero maintenance, is high risk for allowing mistakes to compound into “complicated mistakes.”

    Negative maintenance, minimizes your risk by addressing simple mistakes before they compound into “complicated mistakes.”

    Proactively giving a little of your time up front is, “giving before you get.” You’re giving “effort” before you get “complicated mistakes.”

  • Jeff Epstein

    There’s a related quality in executives and employees: shock absorbers, as opposed to shock transmitters. When bad things (shocks) happen, people who are shock absorbers take personal responsibility and perform at a high level, encouraging others and calming people down. In contrast, people who are shock transmitters avoid responsibility and pass the buck, spreading alarm and raising people’s fears. Shock absorbers are natural leaders and valued employees.

  • Some people leave you with more energy than you had before you met them.

    They empower others, rejuvenate them, and make others feel good.

    It’s like the famous saying, “people may not remember what you said or did, but they will always remember how you made them feel”.

  • A Negative Maintenance CEO could be defined as someone who gets stronger when confronted with volatility and uncertainty. This person, therefore, confronts volatility and uncertainty earlier before each reaches critical mass.

  • Seeing, understanding and dealing with mistakes/problems. Such an important trait. One would think its obvious. But it is very uncommon trait.

    The only reasons startups exist is because big organizations can’t deal with mistakes/problems. Think about every startup you know. For each you could point to a big company and say, they should have thought of that or they should have played fast catch up once they saw it.

    At every single company I’ve been successful with, I’ve had a BigCo employee come up to me at a conference and say you know we thought about that or we could have done that. Really??? Except that you were spending your entire day in meetings with 17 people trying as hard as possible not to make a decision for fear of making or covering up a mistake.

    When I end up at a BigCo because they bought my company to deal with a mistake, my behavior (things like saying: “wow did I fuck that up, I didn’t see that at all, they should call me Mr. Magoo”) is so strange that people literally come up to me and say “you can’t say that”

    BTW: In flying an airplane, they have a saying: Its not the first mistake that kills you, see it correct it, no problem, however if you make a second mistake on top of the first one you are in trouble, because the third mistake in a row kills you every time.

    • Rick

      “The only reasons startups exist is because big organizations can’t deal with mistakes/problems.”
      I’m not sure if I understand exactly what your saying there. But I think mostly startups exist because people can’t deal with “big organizations.” I am one of them. Also I think BigCo knows its most often better to wait until something has be proven, at least somewhat, by someone else before entering the market. What say ye’ Philip?

      • You understand what I’m saying, probably the reason you can’t “deal” is the same as most, you just want to get things done. There is one thing I left out. The cost of making a mistake at a big company can be so high so you really, really don’t want to make mistakes.

        • Rick

          “…you just want to get things done…”
          Yep! I’m more of a planner than an implementer and can work really fast alone. I’m always looking for ways to make my processes more efficient and effective. There are some problems with that. The work day can be really short. When you go outside, meaning to other people, things slow down dramatically. You end up waiting for other to get things done. Your work will be done and you’ll be waiting to see the results of others’ work so that you can move onto your next task.

  • brgardner

    When I first saw the word negative, it gave me a negative first impression. I almost didn’t read the post, because I wasn’t in the mood for something negative. I didn’t understand the positive nature of the saying until I got into the post. I would look for a new word to replace negative. Maybe “Net Positive Maintenance”

  • I’d love to read more specifics as to what made this particular CEO negative maintenance. I’m sure many founders would benefit!

  • JLM

    There are many analogies pertinent to what you are discussing — competence is the key.

    When flying, a really good pilot is good at taking off, landing, setting George (autopilot), communicating with ATC (air traffic control) and monitoring the plane’s systems to ensure the data is consistent with the flight plan.

    It takes about two years and 1,000 hours (which may take four to eight years to acquire) to become that pilot. This pilot can deal calmly with weather, emergencies (like being airborne during 9-11), system failures and traffic. It is like Malcolm Gladwell’s hypothesis in Outliers — it takes time, 10,000 hours, to achieve mastery.

    VCs have a tendency to remember their CEOs in a frame of reference anchored at when they first met. Having been a CEO for over 33 years, I can tell you CEOs develop and become very competent if they want to do so.