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.
I don’t care what your political orientation is, if you want an awesome two hour lesson in leadership watch the movie Thirteen Days. It’s the story of the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis based on the book by May and Zelikow titled The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Amy and I watched it last night. I was exhausted from two weeks on the east coast and was having trouble speaking (Amy refers to it as “getting the dregs of Brad.”) I think I was even out of dregs so I just laid on the coach and watched the movie. I half watched it a few months ago while catching up on email and I saw it when it first came out so I knew the story. But when I watched it a few months ago I didn’t give it my undivided attention. This time I did because I didn’t have the energy to do anything else.
On Thursday and Friday I was in DC and had four significant experiences. The first was a tour of the CIA which, while limited to very specific physical areas (including the CIA gift shop), included a 75 minute roundtable with the CIA’s CTO and his team about the future. Later Thursday night I had a very quiet tour of the West Wing. Friday morning I was on a panel on The Need for Net Neutrality with Brad Burnham (Union Square Ventures) and Santo Politi (Spark Capital) followed by a dynamite meeting at the White House with Phil Weiser and members of the National Economic Council team, Aneesh Chopra (CTO of the US), and Vivek Kundra (CIO of the US). For two days I was immersed in government leadership.
Yesterday I woke up very late in the morning to Brad Burnham’s post titled Web Services as Governments. It’s a must read post where he makes several very specific analogies for which web services act like which kinds of government. He specifically breaks down which government he thinks Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Craigslist look like. While you may not agree with his mappings, the general construct is incredibly powerful when you think about creating a company that operates on top of a web service (or platform company.)
And then – after sleeping most of the day – I watched Thirteen Days. As I was immersed in it, I kept thinking about examples from Brad’s post as well as my experience dealing with web services that are powerful governments. When I think about those examples, Thirteen Days is a movie that every CEO and every member of the management team in these companies (or any company for that matter) should watch.
As a bonus, in both my CIA meeting and the Net Neutrality panel I got to toss out my line that “in 40 years we will not be able to distinguish between biological machines and non-biological humans. Basically the machines will take over and our goal should be that they are nice to us.” After waking up this morning feeling much more rested, it was extra fun to see a huge NY Times titled Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday about the Singularity.
Sometimes a person says one sentence that just sticks with you and is so perfect that it defines a whole category of behavior. Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga, riffed on the phrase “be the CEO of your job” in a board meeting a year or so ago. It stuck with me and I’ve thought about it many times since.
On Sunday, the NY Times did a great “Corner Office” interview with Mark titled Are You a C.E.O. of Something? Among other things it explored the idea of being the CEO of your job. Fred Wilson – also an investor in Zynga – wrote a post on Sunday titled Empowering Your Team which talks about one aspect of this. But Fred left out a great example from one of Mark’s earlier companies (Support.com) which really nails this concept.
“We had this really motivated, smart receptionist. She was young. We kept outgrowing our phone systems, and she kept coming back and saying, “Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system.” And I said: “I don’t want to hear about it. Just buy it. Go figure it out.” She spent a week or two meeting every vendor and figuring it out. She was so motivated by that. I think that was a big lesson for me because what I realized was that if you give people really big jobs to the point that they’re scared, they have way more fun and they improve their game much faster. She ended up running our whole office.”
Think about the conceptual progression. First, the CEO (Mark) had to have to courage to make the young, motivated, smart receptionist “be the CEO of her job.” Then, when the problem was put to him (“Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system”), Mark resisted doing something so many entrepreneurs (and executives, and managers) do – namely to “manage” the problem. Instead of spending a lot of his time solving the problem, or setting up a committee to spend a month figuring out the phone system, or asking someone more senior to the receptionist to figure it out, he gave her the responsibility of solving the entire problem. He anointed her “CEO of her job” – as the receptionist, she was the one that felt the most pain from the inadequate phone system and was probably in the best position to figure out a solution.
In this case, the notion of “be the CEO of your job” was in the culture of the organization so the receptionist – who was in Mark’s words young, motivated, and smart – took this seriously, spent real time figuring out the solution, and then solved it. I’m sure the early culture of Support.com was “don’t spend a lot of money” so the financial constraint, while vague, was probably understood. While there’s plenty more behind the scenes in the story, the young reception clearly “leveled up” (it’s impossible not to use game-speak when talking about Zynga) and ended up running the whole office.
I work with CEO’s every day. So I’m naturally wired to encourage them to be CEO of their own job. While this is pretty meta, it’s an important starting point as I already think this way all the time. I’m certainly not perfect and have moments where I just jump in and try to solve a specific problem, but most of the time I let the CEO’s be CEO. However, when I contemplate this, I realize I haven’t done a good job of encouraging the CEO’s to make everyone in their organization CEO of the job. Some CEO’s do this naturally and – not surprisingly – these are generally the highest achieving companies.
Pause and ponder the idea. Assuming you are in an entrepreneurial organization, are you being the CEO of your job? Is this culturally (and functionally) acceptable? Do you get rewarded for taking risks and succeeding (or failing) like your CEO does? If not, would you be more effective if you did?
Now, if you are the CEO of an entrepreneurial organization, do you encourage everyone in the company to be CEO of their job? Is this culturally (and functionally) acceptable? Do they get rewarded for taking risks and succeeding (or failing) like you do? If not, would they be more effective if they did?
If you applied the lens of “be the CEO of your job” to you job, would you behave any differently?
When I was on vacation last week, I read John Bogle’s book Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life. In addition to be a superb book, it had a bunch of tasty little nuggets in it. One of my favorites was “the three i’s – innovator, imitator, and idiot” that was attributed to Warren Buffett.
I thought of this nugget this morning when reading Fred Wilson’s post When Government Funds Business. In it, he concludes “When government funds business, it messes everything up.” One of his examples is the delicious irony that Citi – which just got more government money – is running traditional print ads in the NY Times.
Fred’s wife Joanne’s reaction to this is "We are paying for that ad. In a newspaper that less and less people read every day. No wonder they are in trouble". Yup – I’d put that behavior in the idiot column.
However, I’m aware of some things going on at Citi that I’d put in the innovator column. They aren’t public so I don’t think I can talk about them, but I’m amazed at how forward looking, innovative, potentially transformational, and relatively inexpensive these activities are. They are the kind of fundamental investments that you’d hope major companies are making to stay relevant in the next decade.
While most people aren’t innovators, that’s ok. Many American’s understand the importance of them and – when the innovators take leadership roles – they motivate the non-innovators to follow them. In a twist on Buffett’s line, I’d suggest that if you apply it to leadership, you can segment leaders into three categories: innovators, imitators, and idiots.
When I think about my experiences with large companies, I see Buffett’s quip all over the place. Their leaders include innovators, imitators, and idiots throughout the organization. Same with government. The challenge is the innovators – especially when they are in a culture that is playing defense or simply trying to survive – often get drowned out, discouraged, or marginalized.
I believe that one of the key foundations that America has been built on is the innovator. At all levels of society, throughout history, the innovator has led, created change, and inspired greatness throughout our history. People love to follow the innovator. While the innovator is willing to take risks that might result in failure, not taking the risks often results in even greater failure.
My appeal to all leaders in big companies – and in government – is to innovate. Play offense. If you don’t know how to do this, look around for the innovators in your organization and team up with them. Challenge the imitators to step up their game. And don’t tolerate the idiots in any way, shape, or form.