I got to spend a lot of time with my close friend Rand Fishkin the past few days. The first was at Denver Startup Week, where we did a panel discussion with Ben Huh and Bart Lorang where we discussed the pact between CEO and Board, the pact between Founder and Investor, and how to be transparent and direct.
The next day, Rand led a full day offsite for a number of CEOs in our portfolio.
In between, he wrote an epic blog post titled A Long, Ugly Year of Depression That’s Finally Fading. Go read it now – I’ll wait.
I love Rand – not in that surface “I love you man” kind of way. Ever since I met him and his wife Geraldine, I’ve adored them as a couple and each as individuals. I often develop deep personal relationships with the people I work with which can be challenging when businesses struggle and difficult decisions have to be made. I’ve had a few friendships fail as a result of the pressure, stress, and intensity of working through certain situations, but far more have strengthened as a result. It’s a risk I decided to take a long time ago and I’ll continue to do it, even when I have to cope with my own anxiety, emotional struggles, and even depression, as a result.
We invested in Moz in April 2012. Rand wrote so extensively about it in his post Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future that almost all of the major tech blogs declined to write about it “because all the news was covered in the post.” Whatever.
The first nine months were great – the business grew as planned as I started to get to know everyone and how things worked at Moz. The company was working on a major rebrand (from SEOMoz to Moz) as well as a huge software expansion which was started before I invested. But by mid-year 2013 things were not going as planned. Rand has written extensively about it, but when he and Geraldine visited us in Boulder for a few days around that time both Amy and I thought Rand was depressed.
By the winter time, Rand had decided to hand the CEO roles to his longtime partner and COO Sarah Bird. Shortly after, he acknowledged his depression in his post at the end of 2013 when he wrote Can’t Sleep; Caught in The Loop. Regardless of his struggle, he continued to work incredibly hard, but we started having a different conversation, this time as friends rather than investor / board member and CEO / founder. I was more concerned about Rand’s mental health than his activity at Moz, and our conversations were generally around this. At the same time, Sarah grabbed the CEO reins firmly and has done an outstanding job, which I knew would ultimately be helpful to Rand.
Rand looked better in the past few days than I’ve felt he looked in several years. I was thrilled to see his post come out between our rambling Denver Startup Week discussion and the full day of the CEO offsite.
Most of all, I’m delighted that my friend Rand’s depression is finally starting to fade. Rand – you are amazing – and loved by me and many. Carry that with you all the time.
In yesterday’s post Mentors 4/18: Be Direct. Tell The Truth, However Hard, Joah Spearman left a very powerful comment about empathy.
“The older I get the more I realize that truth is something that is best coupled with empathy. Ultimately, you have to seek to understand before you can be understood and part of telling the truth is knowing that you’ll never know someone else’s truth until you hear it directly from them rather than assuming you know what someone has experienced or what’s best for them.”
This made me think of a deeply held belief that I hold with my partners at Foundry Group – brutal honesty delivered kindly.
I especially keyed in on Transparent, Authentic, and Empathetic as these three are core personal values of mine. However, these three ideas often come into conflict. It’s hard to be transparent and empathetic at the same time. Consider the situation where you fire a person. Legally, you likely have some constraints on what you say, limiting your transparency. You want to be empathetic to the person you fired, so this again limits your transparency (or, if you are transparent, you likely aren’t being very empathetic.) And then, at a meta-level, you will have some internal struggles with your authenticity around this situation.
The tension between the concepts is helpful as it makes you think harder about how you comport yourself is difficult, challenging, or complex situations.
The solution between me, Seth, Jason, and Ryan is to be brutally honest at all times but deliver feedback kindly.
While I’m sure we hold back on occasion, especially when one of us is unclear on what is going on, we subscribe to the notion of brutal honesty. We try hard to be fair witnesses in the style of my wife Amy, saying what we believe to be the truth. When it’s a hypothesis, we frame it as such. When it’s an assertion, we state that. When it’s something we feel strongly about, we preface it appropriately. And when it’s a fact that we are certain of, we are unambiguous in what we say.
No matter how difficult, sharp, upsetting, or confrontational something is, we always deliver the message kindly. We are not decedents of the Stepford Wives and we each have our own personalities, so “delivered kindly” means something different for each of us. But we never mean malice, harm, or disrespect. We are quick to own our opinions, especially when we are wrong. And when on the receiving end, we listen, and try to understand the other person’s truth, as well as our own, and then reconcile them.
If you sat in a meeting with us, you’d see no yelling. No pounding on the table. No grandstanding. No aggressive body language. No passive aggressive behavior. But you would hear a lot of brutal honesty, And you’ll hear it delivered kindly.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of “the duo” a lot recently.
Many of the companies I’m involved in have either two co-founders or two partners who partner up early in the life of the business. Examples of founding partners including Andrei and Peter (Kato.im), Keith and Jeff (BigDoor), James and Eric (Fitbit), and Matthew and Cashman (Yesware). Of course there are many other famous founding duos like Steve and Steve (Apple), Jerry and Dave (Yahoo!), Larry and Sergey (Google), and Bill and Paul (Microsoft). My first company (Feld Technologies) had a duo (me and Dave) and the company that bought Feld Technologies did also – Jerry and Len (AmeriData).
Now, these duos are not the leadership team. But there is a special magic relationship between the duo. I like to think about it like the final fight scene from Mr. and Mrs. Smith where Brad and Angelina are back to back, spinning around in circles, doing damage to the enemy.
This is not just “I’ve got your back, you’ve got my back.” It’s “we are in this together. All in. For keeps.”
It’s just like my relationship with Amy. We are both all in. It’s so powerful – in good times and in bad times.
I’m on the receiving end of phone calls and video conferences with CEOs all day long. And, at least once a day, I can feel the intense stress on the person I’m talking to oozing through the phone or the screen. The conversation is often calm and rational, but below the surface is a bubbling cauldron of pressure.
Welcome to life as a CEO of a fast growing startup. Every day something new and unexpected comes at you. Often multiple things. Some are awesome. Some are ok. Some are bad. And some are awful.
Ben Horowitz wrote what I think is the best post ever on this called The Struggle. After I read it, I asked him if I could include it in my book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. He graciously said yes, so I did.
I felt The Struggle regularly when I was running Feld Technologies in the 1980s. I put myself at a disadvantage – when something went wrong people often called for “Mr. Feld.” My partner Dave carried a lot of the burden as well so I wasn’t alone, but I was on the receiving end of a lot of unhappiness over the years.
While I got better at compartmentalizing it, I never mastered it. I still struggle with it today. I can absorb an enormous amount of stress from the CEOs I work with. But sometimes I get overloaded and end up far out on a deep tree limb trembling with anxiety. I like to refer to this as “inappropriate anxiety” because I know exactly what is at the root cause, but my obsessive mind has a difficult time letting it go.
So I do what I can. I talk to Amy. I walk Brooks the Wonder Dog. I take a bath. I try to sleep a little more. I run more. I let the obsessive thoughts roll around in my head, chasing each other like characters from SpongeBob SquarePants.
And sometimes I just go in a closet and scream for a little while. I let all the bad energy out. I put my all into it – expelling the stress. Trying to reset my mind. Knowing that the inappropriate anxiety will go away and I’ll feel ok again.
When I hear this in the voice of a CEO I’m working with, I offer up myself as a release valve. While I don’t invite it, I want them to know they can vent to me. That they can bare their soul safely to me. That I won’t judge them on the pressure they are under. That I won’t try to solve the problem for them.
But that I’ll be there.
And I let them scream if they want to.
It’s really hard to be a CEO. Becoming a great CEO takes a lot of time, work, focus, coaching, and introspection.
My very close friend Jerry Colonna is hosting his second CEO Bootcamp from April 2 – April 6. Several CEOs from the Foundry Group portfolio went last year and each had an amazing time. This year I’m going to be attending as a special guest and participating throughout the four day program.
I’ve learned an enormous about from Jerry over the past 20 years. We first met in 1994 when I was a chairman of NetGenesis. Jerry had recently invested in a company called eShare, which ended up buying a product called net.Thread (one of the first, if not the first, threaded discussion group system – which was written in Perl) from NetGenesis. I joined the eShare board as part of the deal and a very deep friendship and working relationship ensued.
When Jerry told me about the first CEO Bootcamp a year ago I encouraged a number of CEOs in our portfolio to attend. Each one came back saying some version of “it changed my life”, which wasn’t really a surprise to me knowing Jerry but was a strong positive affirmation of the experience.
This year, when Jerry told me the dates for CEO Bootcamp and asked me to spread the word, I asked if I could come and participate. It’s in Colorado at an awesome place called Devil’s Thumb Ranch so I can drive to it and is a topic that’s front of mind for me given my relationship with the various CEOs in our portfolio.
I try hard to develop a deep personal relationship with the CEOs I work with. I’ve written in the past about Being Vulnerable and think it’s one of the most important qualities of a leader. As Jerry says so well in the overview of the requirements for attendees, “you may be tired, but you must be vulnerable, curious and courageous.” The full list of requirements follows:
You’re the CEO of a tech startup that has employees.
This is the first time you have been a CEO within a company of this scale.
You’ve logged immeasurable hours and have made tremendous sacrifices.
You’ve had success with your company. You realize there is more to this game than “success.”
You may be tired, but you must be vulnerable, curious and courageous.
I’m planning on participating in the entire event. The agenda is still being finalized, but the current plan is for me to do a joint talk with Jerry on Friday, fireside chats with Jerry on Friday and Saturday, and hikes after the main sessions.
I know two of Jerry’s three partners in this endeavor and think Sam Elmore and Ali Schultz are dynamite. To be clear, I’m volunteering my time and participating – this is Jerry, Sam, Ali, and Michael’s gig so I’m going to do whatever they want me to – or not to – do.
Registration is open until 2/9/14 at midnight MST. 20 CEOs will be accepted. I hope to see you there.
At this year’s NVCA meeting, my partner Jason Mendelson (who was the chair of the event) interviewed Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter. Dick is an awesome CEO, awesome human, and awesome interviewee. Among other things, he’s hilarious, and PandoDaily wrote a fun summary of the interview in their post What CEOs could learn from comedians.
Dick had many great one liners that fit in 140 characters as you’d expect from someone who is both the CEO of Twitter and was once a standup comedian. But one really stuck in my mind.
It’s not your job to defend your team. It’s your job to improve your team.
Upon reflection, all of the great CEOs and executives that I’ve ever worked with believe this and behave this way.
Every time I make an investment I believe it is going to be an incredible success. I don’t know any VC who invests thinking “eh – this will be mediocre. When you start the relationship you believe it’s going to be massively successful. The same is true of hiring an executive. Dick made the point that the cliche “only hire A players” is completely obvious and banal. CEOs don’t run around saying “hey – let’s hire C players – that’s what we want – C players.” Everyone you hire is someone you think will be an A player, by definition.
But, in the same way that every VC investment doesn’t become a 100x return, every person you hire won’t turn out to be an A player. After a few months, you start to really understand the strengths and weaknesses of the person. And you see how the person interacts with the rest of your team. This is normal – there’s no way you could know any of this during the interview process.
The not so amazing CEO or executive immediately falls into a mode of trying to defend the person, or the team, to the outside world (board, investors, customers) and other members of the team. I’ve heard a remarkable number of different rationalizations over the years about why a person or a team is going to work. And, when I press on this, the underlying response is often simply “give us / me / them more time.”
Instead of defending the team, the amazing CEO will respond with “yup – we need to get better – here’s what we are doing.” And then they’ll add “what else do you think we should do?” and “how can you help us improve?” This type of language – accepting reality and focusing on improving it, rather that defending it, is so much more powerful.
Of course, often the answer is that to improve a team, you have to eliminate a person or move them to a very different role. This is hard, but it’s part of the process, especially in a fast growing company. Someone who was incredible at a job when the company is 50 people might be horrible at the job when the company is 500 people. Nothing is static – including competence.
This is true of CEOs as well. We can all be better at what we do – a lot better. It’s easy to fall into the trap of defending our own behavior when someone offers us feedback or constructive criticism. The walls go up fast when someone attacks us, or we fail. But if you switch immediately from “defend” to “improve”, you can often get extraordinary feedback and help in real time. And sometimes you have to replace yourself, as Jonathan Strauss at Awe.sm did recently and explained in his tremendous post Replacing Oneself as CEO
I loved working with Dick at FeedBurner – I learned an incredible amount from him. I treasure every minute I get with him these days and one of the biggest bummers about not being an investor in Twitter is that I don’t get to work with him on a regular basis. It was joyful to listen to him and realize that there is another wave of people at a rapidly growing and very important company that are learning from him, as he works to improve his team on a continual basis.
I received a bunch of great comments and responses to my post Be Vulnerable. Several people asked if I was inspired by Brené Brown’s TEDxHouston talk in 2010. I hadn’t ever seen it so I watched it last night. After 20 minutes, it’s easy to see how it could have inspired my post – it’s absolutely wonderful. As a bonus, it’s an example of an excellent 20 minute presentation – Brené shows us how a 20 minute high concept talk is done.
I especially loved the thread on numbing vulnerability.
“We are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated cohort in US history. You can not selectively numb emotion – so we numb everything. We numb joy, gratitude, happiness. Then we are miserable. And we feel vulnerable. So then we numb. And create this vicious cycle.”
Another great segment is around making the uncertain, certain.
“I’m right, you are wrong, that’s it. There is no discourse or conversation – just blame.”
Carve out 20 minutes and give yourself the time and space to watch, listen, and think. And let yourself be vulnerable, especially to Brené’s ideas.
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.