I used to love the Matrix’s Red Pill / Blue Pill metaphor and still use it occasionally to try to make a point around dealing with reality in an entrepreneurial context. Several years ago, I became deeply bummed out about how this metaphor was being used in politics and gender equity situations. It’s gotten worse since then, and I find many of the cases it is used in and the people who use it reprehensible, so I don’t use it much anymore.
However, I used it today for a company that is doing well and has exceptional strengths and some fundamental weaknesses.
This is true of every company that is doing well.
But it’s hard to deal with reality all the time. When things are going well, leaders (and boards) often avoid dealing with weaknesses. Some board members and investors are great at motivating a CEO to level things up. Others aren’t. Some CEOs want to embrace the challenge of leveling up in areas where they, and the business, are fundamentally weak, even if it’s emotionally and functionally challenging. Others don’t, or their own behavior and wiring get in their way.
There are many points in a company’s life where the CEO and the board can either deal with or deny reality. When dealing with reality, a key factor is embracing the business, team, and individual’s weaknesses and then deciding how to address them. Collectively. With empathy and emotional support for each other.
This isn’t easy. Over the past 30 years, I’ve been in this position many times, often multiple times as a board member in a particular company. These are different than crisis moments, where everything is on the line. It’s often when many things are going well, but there are prominent areas of the business that aren’t keeping up with what’s working.
I’ve never figured out magic words to say as a board member in these moments. Instead, I say what is on my mind, take responsibility for my participation in any weaknesses, dysfunction, or challenges, and focus on where I think we need to put additional energy in improving the business.
This is often an acknowledgment that we need to add a few experienced people to the leadership team. The CEO has to drive this. When the right people are added, notable positive shifts in the weaknesses can happen extremely quickly. But, in the absence of them, the talk generally continues, without action. Reality is not dealt with – just poked around the edges.
One of an effective board’s roles is to speak clearly about the weaknesses and hold the CEO accountable for addressing them. When I am effective as a board member, I do this well. When I’m not, I don’t. I’ve got plenty of cases of both in the last 30 years.
My mantra as a board member is:
“As long as I support the CEO I work for her. If I don’t support her, my job is to do something about that, which is not to replace her, but to try to get back to the place where I support her.”
Ultimately, as a board member and major investor, I can participate in replacing the CEO. While I’d prefer not to do that, I’m not afraid of doing it. But dealing with reality with the existing CEO is much more enjoyable and has generally been a more successful path for me.
All of this is extremely challenging, as it has to do with personal growth in the context of business growth. It’s easier to have entrenched thinking, play out the exact historical patterns that worked or be resistant to addressing whatever the current reality is. It’s compounded by the fact that exogenous factors are constantly changing and often change extremely fast.
The probability of long term success increases with a CEO, a board, and a leadership team is tuned into whatever the current reality is, their strengths and weaknesses, and focus on continually leveling up the weaknesses while continuing to play to their strengths.
If you are a CEO, spend a few minutes today contemplating whether your board is highly effective at helping you grow, scale, and evolve the business. Are you systematically and continuously addressing your weaknesses as an individual, leadership team, and company?
Are you dealing with reality?
In the US, we are currently getting a master class in “how not to lose.”
When I was young, my parents regularly said to me, “Don’t be a sore loser.” I was a serious tennis player between the age of 10 and 14. John McEnroe was my hero, so, not surprisingly, I had a temper on the court. I threw my racket, screamed a lot (mostly at myself), and moped around when I lost.
I also played soccer. For a few years, I was a goalie until one fateful game. I remember it being a big game – whatever our equivalent of a championship or playoff game was. I was a good goalie – quick, pretty fearless, with excellent hand-eye coordination. The game was a tie and went into a penalty kick shootout, which was a particularly cruel thing to do to a bunch of ten-year-olds. I can even remember the name of our team’s star (Scott), who missed his kick. I then missed the save on the next shot from the other team, and they won the game.
I walked off the field sobbing. I’d let my team down. If only I could have saved that goal. Why didn’t Scott make his shot? It was all my fault. I sucked.
My mom put her arm around me and said, “Don’t be a sore loser.” She hugged me. I still remember that.
When I play tennis, I still mutter to myself, but I no longer scream, throw my racket, or swear at the other player. I’ve won a lot in my life, but I’ve also lost many times. And, when I reflect on losing and tennis, I think of the two people who model losing and winning better than anyone I’ve ever seen.
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Following is an example from the 2017 Australian Open.
Nadal is exhausted from the tournament. And he lost. And yet, grace. Minute 1:45 – 2:00 of the video is delightful.
Winning gracefully is equally powerful. Following is Roger Federer from 2017. Minute 2:15 – 2:30 is beautiful.
This is how you lose. This is how you win. And then you get up the next day and try again.
My post The Future Of Work Is Distributed received some good comments. More interesting was the number of direct emails I received back with detailed information about “remote-first” companies and how they did things.
There was a distinction in some of these emails between “remote-first” and “multiple geographies.” It’s an important nuance, as there is a big difference between a fully distributed workforce (which the blockchain kids refer to as a “decentralized workforce”) and a multi-location workforce.
Almost every company in our portfolio with more than 50 employees either has or is looking at a second (or third, or fourth) location. This is especially true for companies headquartered in Silicon Valley, Seattle, and New York.
While I’ve observed (and experienced) mixed success with second locations being implemented too early, I’ve concluded that this is mostly a function of the company not having a handle on how to deal with a distributed workforce. When the CEO prioritized either distributed or remote work and makes it part of the wiring of how the company operates, it’s effective. When it’s an afterthought, a lifestyle choice, or a reaction to something, it fails.
I’ve found that secondary/tertiary US cities work better than international locations, with the exception of software/hardware engineering locations. Several of our companies have had great success in Eastern Europe and Russia with technical teams. China and India work, but seem to be harder and more hit or miss. Cities in the US that have concentrations of technical, sales, or operational talent, usually because of one specific employer or a highly motivated university nearby, have been surprisingly effective.
The biggest magic trick seems to be the “direct flight.” When it’s a two hour or less direct flight to the second location, people move easily between places. I knew this instinctively from all of my time traveling between the east coast and the west coast from Denver. When I went west, it was easy. When I went east, it was hard.
Magic trick number two is well-implemented video conferencing. I learned an approach many years ago from my now-partner Chris Moody that he used at Aquent when he was COO. He set up video conferencing in a cubical at each location at left it on all the time. Today, we have the equivalent on our desktops, so the cubical trick isn’t needed, but easy ways to immediately start video conferences at any time, as a substitute for in-person meetings, without having to go into separate rooms in the office, makes a huge difference in interpersonal interactions.
It seems pretty clear that a very large, single location company in Silicon Valley, New York, Seattle, and several other cities (e.g. LA, Boston) is getting much more challenging. Sure, it’s possible, but is it advisable?
I received plenty of useful feedback on my rant Budgets – There Has To Be A Better Way.
Two of the links that I found particularly helpful were:
- Turn Your Budgeting Process Upside Down by Robert Howell
- How to Ruin Your Company with One Bad Process by Ben Horowitz
Robert Howell points to a longer term view than one year with his suggestion around rolling plans. He also emphasizes a focus on economic value – specifically future cash flows – rather than accounting earnings. Simply – focus on cash, rather than non-cash calculations. He ends with a great paragraph on eliminating the word “budget” and reorienting it around your specific goal (e.g. “profit plan”, or “break-even plan”, or “maximum monthly investment of $500k plan.”)
Ben Horowitz describes how his budgeting process almost bankrupted his company LoudCloud, and how he now suggests a different approach based on constraints. It’s especially relevant for fast-growing companies. His approach is summarized below.
- Run rate increase – Note that I say “run rate increase” and not “spend increase”. You should set a limit on the amount by which you are willing to increase what you are spending in the last month of the coming year vs. the previous year.
- Earnings/Loss – If you have revenue, another great constraint is your targeted earnings or loss for the year.
- Engineering growth rate – Unless you are making an acquisition and running it separately or sub-dividing engineering in some novel way, you should strive not to more than double a monolithic engineering organization in a 12-month period.
- Ratio of engineering to other functions – Once you have constrained engineering, then you can set ratios between engineering and other functions to constrain them as well.
- Take the constrained number that you created and reduce it by 10-25% to give yourself room for expansion, if necessary.
- Divide the budget created above in the ratios that you believe are appropriate across the team.
- Communicate the budgets to the team.
- Run your goal-setting exercise and encourage your managers to demonstrate their skill by achieving great things within their budgets.
- If you believe that more can legitimately be achieved in a group with more money, then allocate that manager extra budget out of the slush fund you created with the 10-25%.
I love the theory of constraints as an operating principle for many things, and Ben applies it really well in his post.
Both articles are worth a detailed read – they are each short, but full of goodness.
I wonder if it means anything that each of the author’s last names starts with the letter H?
“This budget will let us have 2020 vision.”
I heard that quote at the end of a board meeting yesterday and laughed out loud. As someone with terrible eyesight (I’ve worn glasses since age 3 and had eye surgery at age 8), my “vision” has always been suspect …
I’m in Seattle for a few days doing the end of year board meeting/budget drill at a number of our Seattle-based companies and thought this was a priceless pun.
The person who said it also had complete awareness that the budget isn’t a prediction of what is actually going to happen in 2020, which made the statement even more clever.
I made sure to wipe off the lenses of my glasses before my next meeting to try to see a little better. By the time I got back to the hotel room at the end of the day, they were once again dirty and covered with dried raindrops.
We are in the middle of the budget planning process at many companies. This is a recurring Q4 event that spills over into Q1. Budgets for the next year (2020) get finalized between December 2019 and February 2020.
As I was daydreaming the other day during a budget discussion, I thought to myself “there has to be a better way.”
Since I started investing in private companies 25 years ago, I’ve been experiencing the same cycle over and over again.
The normal situation is end of year budget planning. Q1 performance on plan. Q2 performance slightly different from plan. Q3 and Q4 performance divergent from plan.
Occasionally companies completely miss their Q1 plan. I’ve always viewed the Q1 plan as a competency test – if you can’t make your Q1 plan, something fundamental is wrong with the business. Of course, when you blow your Q1 budget, the plan goes out the window and gets redone.
Occasionally companies far exceed their budget in Q1 or Q2 or find themselves on a positive trendline that has nothing to do with the original budget. Or, the opposite.
The budgets also have huge variability after financings, when suddenly the budget gets recast given the new money in the bank, or the constraints against hiring are removed and costs increase suddenly, even if this is only to “catch up” with the budget that was underhired to.
It’s all lagging indicators anyway when looking at performance to budget. By the time the November financials are reported, we are already deep into December, and that assumes there is a robust discussion around the monthly company performance.
Some companies are excellent at managing this process. Most are not.
I know of a few very companies, including one very large one (Koch Industries), that famously run without budgets. I’ve tried lots of small incremental things over the years, such as 1H, 2H budgets (running on a six-month budgeting process) and having an expense only budget that lags revenue by a quarter, but I’ve never really landed on something that (a) works, (b) is materially easier, and that (c) management accepts.
When you add up all the time spent on budgeting across all the organizations on the planet (including government), the human species wastes an enormous amount of time on a thing we don’t do very well.
There must be a better way.
I heard this phrase at a board meeting today from another board member.
What are the 30% of your activities that you should spend 100% of your time on?
You’ve got 30 people in your company. You have nine months of cash in the bank. You are making progress. But it’s not clear if you are making enough progress fast enough to raise money from new investors before you run out of money.
Of course, the word “progress” is completely open for interpretation, subjective, and varies dramatically by company.
What do you do? A natural reaction is to cut costs to extend your runway to give you more time to make progress, whatever progress means.
At 30 people, that’s probably the wrong answer. It might not be, but I like the answer of “fierce prioritization” a lot better.
Focus your 30 people on the 30% of things that will really matter. Stop doing the 70% that don’t matter. Right now. Don’t wait.
Fierce prioritization applies to many things in life, not just business. Fiercely prioritize fierce prioritization.
I love the phrase.
I was at a board meeting last week that introduced something new into the mix that I thought was brilliant.
At the beginning of each section of the board meeting, there was one slide that was titled: “What Are We Trying To Get Out of This Section.” Before we started into a section, whoever was leading it walked everybody in the room specifically through what she was expecting to get out of the section.
I think we did this five times over a 3.5 hour board meeting. The first time it felt a little pedantic, but by the last time it was clearly magical. Each “What Are We Trying To Get Out of This Section” was different. Sometimes it was a decision. Other times it was feedback. Once it was a set of introductions.
You could feel the people in the room get recalibrated whenever this slide came up. The previous section had come to an end. The new section hadn’t yet started. Take a deep breath. Erase all the noise in your brain. Pay attention again, especially if your mind has drifted because of the bloviating of the Boulder-based long-haired board member.
I’d never seen this particular tactic before. I hope to see it again.
I read Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things last weekend. This is the third time I’ve read it. It gets better each time. If you are a CEO and you haven’t read it, buy it right now and read it next weekend.
There are endless gems in the book, many of them from Ben’s own experience. My favorite of all time, that stays with me through all the work I do, is his distinction between “peace time” and “war time.”
I think the first time he wrote about this was in his post in 2011 titled Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO. There has been plenty of commentary on the web about it (see The Myth of the Wartime and Peacetime CEO, which really only says a CEO has to be effective in both wartime and peacetime to be successful.)
Ben has an incredible rant in the post that starts off with:
Peacetime CEO knows that proper protocol leads to winning. Wartime CEO violates protocol in order to win.
The rant is worth reading every single word, but I want to highlight and comment on a few of my favorites.
The first one is:
Peacetime CEO always has a contingency plan. Wartime CEO knows that sometimes you gotta roll a hard six.
BSG fans know about rolling a hard six even though the definition is contested by pilots who think non-pilots confuse planes with dice. In wartime, the odds are often very against you. Sometimes you just have to get lucky.
Another one that I love is:
Peacetime CEO strives for broad based buy in. Wartime CEO neither indulges consensus-building nor tolerates disagreements.
Things during wartime are intense. Decisions have to be made quickly. Many will be wrong, need to be overturned, and new decisions have to be made. Sitting around arguing about what to do simply doesn’t work. Get all the ideas out on the table, but then choose. And then execute like crazy.
Peacetime CEO sets big, hairy audacious goals. Wartime CEO is too busy fighting the enemy to read management books written by consultants who have never managed a fruit stand.
Your big hairy audacious goal in wartime is not to die.
As an investor, I’m involved in some companies operating in peacetime and others in wartime. There’s a lot of emotional dissonance during the day as I go back and forth between them. I’ve learned how to be calm in both modes and deal with my emotions outside the context of interacting with CEOs, founders, and leaders. But, Ben’s metaphor of peacetime vs. wartime has been so incredibly helpful to me as an investor in identifying what mode I’m in that I should probably get him some sort of a gift as a thank you.
I spent the past few days in Tokyo at the Kauffman Fellows Annual Summit. Over the past five years, there has been a large increase globally in the number of venture capitalists and people interested in becoming VCs. As a result, an organization like Kauffman Fellows is more important than ever as it helps build an incredible community of the next generation of VCs to learn from each other.
In the mid-1990s, I learned how to be a board member by sitting on a lot of boards, learning from other experienced board members, and making a lot of mistakes. I still make a lot of mistakes (that’s that nature of venture capital, and of life in general), but I like to believe that I’m a much more effective board member than I was 25 years ago. That said, I still have my bad days and walk out of a board meeting feeling unsettled for one reason or another.
Recently, Mark Suster, Fred Wilson, and Seth Levine each wrote excellent posts on how to be a good board member. Each post is worth reading from beginning to end carefully.
Mark Suster: How to Be a Good Board Member
Fred Wilson: How To Be A Good Board Member
Seth Levine wrote a five post series: Designing the Ideal Board Meeting
- Designing the Ideal Board Meeting
- Before the Meeting
- Your Board Package
- The Board Meeting
- Board Conflict
I especially love Fred’s punch line, which I strongly agree with.
“Which leads me to my rule for being a good board member.
It comes down to one word.
If you care, really care, deeply care, like the way a parent cares for a child, you will be a good board member.”
If you are a board member (or interact with a board as part of a leadership team) and want to go even deeper on this, I encourage you to grab a copy of my book Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors
And, if you are having a board meeting that I’m a part of, take a look at my post from 2014 if you want hints about My Ideal Board Meeting.