In a recent board meeting, at a particularly challenging part of the conversation, I did a retrospective of the past five years as a lead up to making a point. I prefaced it by saying “I need you to take a leader approach, not a victim approach.” I realized no one knew that I meant by this, so I told a quick story, which I first heard from Jeremy Bloom, the CEO of Integrate, retired pro-football player, retired Olympic skier, and someone I adore.
“I’ve learned that there are two types of people: leaders and victims. Leaders are those who see a complex problem and figure out a way either individually or collectively to solve it. These are the people who build successful businesses, become C-Level execs and start their own companies. Victims look at problems and instantly blame everyone else when they can’t solve it. They are the finger-pointers and can rarely admit when they make mistakes. I’ve seen firsthand in football and business how victims can bring down the morale of an entire team. It’s impossible to build anything with a victim mentality.”
In the longer version of the story, he talked about his experience on the Philadelphia Eagles (amazing talent, victim mentality) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (mediocre talent, leader mentality.) He also has a great cross-over line from his experience in athletics to being an entrepreneur:
“My journey in athletics provided me with numerous lessons I apply every day in business. In athletics, for every gold medal that I won I failed 1000 more times. I became conditioned to handle the emotional swings. Possessing the mental ability to stay even keeled during the highs and lows is one of the most important skills one can possess to increase the likelihood of long term success. Any entrepreneur will tell you that there are days when they are 100% confident that they are going to change the world and other days when they aren’t sure if the company will be around in a few months. Managing the emotional swings in business comes easier to me because of my experience in athletics.”
The retrospective with the company was powerful. The company is a real company with significant revenue and over 100 employees. They’ve had numerous challenges along the way, including many disappointments with larger partners who have behaved in ways that could easily cause anyone to be cynical and take a victim approach to the world, as in “we are a victim of the capriciousness and bad behavior of our much larger strategic partner.”
The core of the company is strong. The team, especially the leadership team, is dynamite. The customer base is incredible. The technology and products are very deep. The optimistic view (the leader view) of their prospects is strong. The pessimistic view (the victim view) is one of fatigue and frustration, especially of broken promises of others.
I led with the punchline. The business was profitable in Q3. It was cash flow positive after debt service. The Q4 pipeline is solid. The new product family looks great and is off to a strong start, even though it’s early in the cycle. The broad market for their new product line is exploding. The leadership team is dynamite and very, very tight knit. The employees are smart, committed, and a good mix of long-timers and relatively new folks.
We talked for a while. One of my comments was “Fuck your historical big company partners – you know how they are wired and what their behavior is going to be. Don’t depend on them and don’t worry about them. Work with them in a collaborative, friendly way, but don’t count on them. Be a leader and create your destiny, rather than be a victim to whatever their whims are.”
As I was going through my emails this morning catching up after a long day, I was pondering the tone of entrepreneurs I work closely with, most of whom behave like leaders almost all the time. This is in comparison to a lot of other entrepreneurs I interact with but don’t work with, some who behave like leaders but a surprising numbers who behave like victims. And then I pondered this in the context of my interactions with VCs and co-investors, where again I realized that there is a lot of victim mentality in the mix.
Are you a leader or a victim?
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.
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.
While driving down Highway 36 from Boulder to Denver for a FullContact board meeting, TA McCann told me a wonderful phrase that I’ve been carrying around with me for the past month or so.
“At RivalIQ, we’ve implemented ‘I Will’ instead of ‘We Should.'”
I’ve worked with TA since we invested in Gist in 2009. TA was a co-founder and the CEO. He’s been deeply involved in Techstars Seattle since inception. When RIM acquired Gist, he ran a big software team within RIM for two years. A year ago he co-founded RivalIQ. And last fall he joined the FullContact board. So he’s been around the block.
As part of working together, we’ve become very close friends. We ran the Madison Marathon together (my 17th). We’ve fought together in the trenches over some challenging issues. We’ve enjoyed each others’ friendship, advice, and guidance on some heavy personal issues.
TA embodies the concept of “I will instead of we should.” I’ve always known him to be willing to roll up his sleeves and just get something done. He’s quick to give feedback, challenge ideas, and ask questions, but he’s never afraid to do the work himself.
At Foundry Group, there are twelve of us. I like to believe we embody the “I will” spirit – if someone suggests that something is wrong or needs to be done, they do it. Sure – we pass things around and there’s some delegation, but there’s never a willingness to criticize or give feedback without a corresponding willingness to participate in doing the work.
It’s a small but powerful mental tweak that is similar to the I / We challenge I used to have. In this case it’s the inverse. By shifting to “we” instead of “I” when I talk about what Foundry Group accomplishes, our whole team gets the recognition for the work we’ve all contributed to. This is powerful externally. But internally, by saying “I will” instead of “We should” it puts the responsibility for getting it done on the person making the suggestion. Even if they only manage the work, they are still responsible for making sure it happens, instead of the non-specific and ephemeral “we.”
TA – thanks for the phrase. I continue to learn much from you.
Gluecon’s early bird pricing ends Friday, April 4th and I wanted to make sure you got the chance to register prior to the registration rates going up. When we started Gluecon with Eric Norlin six years ago, I don’t think any of us really had any idea about the true size of the wave of innovation that we were catching. Glue started out like a lot of tech conferences do, with a “business track” and a “technical track,” but we quickly realized what a mistake that was. Since then, Gluecon has transformed into a conference of what I assert is the deepest technical content available around the topics of cloud computing, mobile, big data, APIs and DevOps. The agenda is shaping up to be something really special. Use “brad12” to take 10% off of the early bird registration.
One of the things I love best about my Foundry Group partners is that they each have strong opinions. Another thing I love about them is that they each have big open ears.
I know a lot of people who have strong opinions. I know a lot of other people who are excellent listeners. The venn diagram of the intersection of the two is uncomfortably small.
I know a lot of people with strong opinions who think they are good listeners, but all you need to do is listen to a conversation between them and someone else to watch them talking all over the other person. Or asserting the same point over and over again, often using slightly different language, but not engaging in a process of trying to actually learn from the other person’s response. This is especially vexing to me when the person with strong opinions claims to have heard the other person (as in “I hear you, ok, that makes sense”) but then 24 hours later Mr. Strong Opinion is back on his original opinion with no explanation.
In contrast, I know a lot of strong listeners who won’t express an opinion. The VC archetype that I describe as Mr. Socrates is a classic example of this. I expect most entrepreneurs can give many examples of them being on the receiving end of a stream of questions without any expressed perspective, null hypothesis, or summary of reaction. I hate these types of board meeting discussions – where the VCs just keep asking questions but never actually suggesting anything. There’s not wrong with inquiry and I definitely have my moments of “I don’t get this – I need to ask more questions” but in the absence of a feedback loop in the discussion, it’s very tiresome to me.
Big open ears doesn’t mean that you just listen. It means you are a good listener. An active listener. One who incorporates what he is hearing into the conversation in real time. You are comfortable responding with a modification to an opinion or perspective as a result of new information. You are comfortable challenging, and being challenged, in the goal of getting to a good collaborate answer, rather than just absorbing information but then coming back later as though there was never any information shared.
I’ve always had strong opinions. I can be a loudmouth and occasionally end up in lecture mode where I’m just trying to hammer home my point. My anecdotes and stories often run longer than they should (I blame my father for teaching me this particular “skill.”) But I always try to listen, am always willing to change my opinion based on new data, or explain my position from a different perspective after assimilating new data. When I realize I’m bloviating, I often call myself publicly on it in an effort to shift to listening mode. And I always try to learn from every interaction I have, no matter how satisfying or unenjoyable it is.
Do you have strong opinions AND big open ears?
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 learned a very profound thing from my partner Dave Jilk at Feld Technologies 25 years ago. I have been practicing, and getting better at it, ever since. It’s a core part of the way I work with people and I have Dave to thank for it.
First, some context. Feld Technologies was my first company. Dave and I started it in 1987. We hired, then fired, a bunch of part time people and then just worked together – the two of us – for the next 18 months until we hired our first employee (Shawn Broderick). We were cash flow positive every month because we never raised any outside money. We both did everything, working very closely together. As the company grew, we partitioned a lot of things – I became the sales guy – generating much of our new business. Dave became the software guy, managing the team and getting the work done. But we continued to work closely together – he sold plenty of business and I did plenty of work, including doing all the network integration work for our clients, and occasionally managed something.
We were both young and very inexperienced so we learned a lot together, mostly by screwing things up and then fixing them. Sometimes we had a lot of fun, sometimes we were under tremendous stress, and every now and then one of us was miserable. We were (and continue to be) best friends so when one of us was very unhappy, the other could pick up on the vibe quickly and we talked about it.
I remember a stretch of time where I could tell that Dave was really aggravated with me. This wasn’t uncommon – our love and respect included plenty of “moments” as we were both developing into real adults. But this aggravation seemed deeper and didn’t surface in an obvious way.
I remember taking Dave out to dinner at a sushi place called Nara around the corner from our office at 260 Franklin Street in Boston. I can picture how the night felt – dark and empty with plenty of downtown Boston ambient noise. We went to Nara a lot – this was way before sushi became trendy and it was one of the few places in Boston, located a few blocks away from our office. They had excellent huge bottles of cold beer and amazing fish. And it was always quiet and there was always a booth open.
We sat down, got our beers, and I started with the issue, as I often do.
I asked, “Dave, what’s bugging you so much right now.”
“Why? What am I doing that’s bugging you.”
“Working with you is like reading the last page of a novel first.”
I sat nursing my beer for a quiet, long minute pondering this. I mentally read the last page of a novel and thought I knew what Dave meant. Eventually Dave broke the silence.
“When I bring an issue to you, you immediately tell me the answer. 99% of the time you are correct. So I then go spend all of my time looking for a solution that is better that yours. But I only find it 1% of the time. This is incredibly unsatisfying to me.”
I think he may have added something like “fucking demotivating” but by this point I totally groked it. We had an awesome dinner discussing what over the last 25 years we have regularly referred to as “the last page in the book problem.”
Today, I try hard not to start by telling the answer immediately. The CEOs and entrepreneurs I work with need to learn how to get to the answer. And their answer, in many cases, will be better than mine since I don’t have enough context or information to be right 99% of the time like I did when I was the president of Feld Technologies. But even more importantly, a great CEO knows this also. His team doesn’t want to always hear the answer first. Sometimes they do, or need to, but often they want to be able to talk openly, collect data, and come to it over time.
This brief moment has had a profound impact on how I work. While I despise Mr. Socrates (the guy who just asks question after question after question and never expresses a point of view) and don’t emulate him, I definitely ask more “guided questions” when presented with a problem. I tell more stories to try to give examples of how others have solved the problem. And occasionally, when I realize the CEO is asking for the answer (e.g. when Bart Lorang, in the middle of a board meeting, says “Brad, just tell me the fucking answer – I know you know it.”) I tell the answer. But in the back of my mind I always remember that part of learning the answer is figuring out how to find it.
I was fired from my first two jobs. Here’s the story of one of them, which first appeared as part of LinkedIn’s My First Job content package.
“You’re fired.” Those were the last two words I heard from my boss after working for six months at Potatoes, Etc., my first real job. I smirked, immaturely threw my apron at her (I was 15 years old after all), and slammed the door on my way out.
My final three words, preceding hers, were “you’re a bitch.” In hindsight, her response was predictable.
I remember riding my bike home the three miles from Prestonwood Mall where I worked. I had no idea what I was going to tell my parents, but I decided I’d just tell them what happened and see where the chips landed. I felt ashamed of myself for being so disrespectful to my boss, even though she had constantly demeaned me, and all the other people that worked at Potatoes, Etc. I didn’t have any respect for her, but my parents had taught me better and I was proud of my ability to suck it up and not lose my temper.
Potatoes, Etc. was one of those local fast food restaurants in a giant shopping mall from the 1980s. Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Yup – that was us, except Potatoes (as we liked to call it) was staffed by the “honors kids.” I think the Greek souvlaki place was staffed by the jocks and the Corn Dog place was staffed by the stoners, but it all blurs together 30 years later.
In hindsight, the Potatoes, Etc. supply chain was pretty cool. Idaho spuds appeared magically in 50 pounds boxes and ended up in a dank, gross storeroom. Each shift, one person was responsible for getting them, cleaning them, putting them on trays, covering them with industrial grade salad dressing, and racking the trays. Another person was responsible for putting them in the convection oven and making sure there were enough potatoes cooking at all times to handle the spikes in demand. Another person manned “the bar” – cutting open the potatoes and filling them with whatever goop and toppings the customer ordered. And the last person worked the cash register. After we closed, we were all responsible for cleaning up.
Since we were honors kids, we had a lot of fun with the supply chain. We did a good job of load optimization. We figured out process improvements to cut, fill, and serve the potatoes. We ran a parallel process on cleaning and closing up, so we could be done in ten minutes. We were never, ever short on cash.
Our boss was a young woman – probably in her early 20s. I remember the smell of smoke and alcohol on her breath. I remember Saturday morning shifts where she would come in at 1pm, clearly hung over. She liked to yell at us. Her favorite form of managerial shame was to call someone into the back “room” (there was no door) and dress them down randomly so everyone in the food court could hear.
We were good kids. It took a lot to get a rise out of us. Sure – we’d complain to each other about her, but we bonded together and did a good job regardless of her antics. Every now and then she’d do something that she thought was motivating, like bring a case of beer into the back of the store and offer up cans to us (we always declined – remember, we were good kids). But I can’t remember a single time she praised us – or at least me – for anything.
I had been racking potatoes all day on the day I got fired. I was cranky – I wanted to work up front but today wasn’t my day. I was tired – lifting 50 pounds of potatoes and washing them one by one is a drag. And I was bored out of my mind.
My boss probably noticed I was in a bad mood. A kind word from her would have made all the difference in the world. Instead, she came over to the full rack of potatoes, started pulling them off the racks, and without even looking at me dumped them one by one in the sink.
“You suck at washing potatoes.”
“You’re a bitch.”
My parents were gentle with me. They made sure I understood the lessons from the experience, which included the power of respect and not losing your temper with a superior.
But most importantly this was a key moment that I think back to whenever I consider motivation. My boss never did anything to create a context in which we were motivated. It wouldn’t have taken much. And, if she had, respect – and motivation – would have followed. At 15, I learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of a boss who had no idea how to create an environment in which the people that worked for her were motivated. I’ve carried that experience, and the resulting insight, to every subsequent thing I’ve been involved in.
As Amy and I get to the end of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica, I’m noticing more and more management and leadership lessons. Oh – and it’s awesome SciFi.
In my experience, it’s a challenge for CEOs and management teams to get focused on a small set of numbers that drive behavior. I talked about this in my post Three Magic Numbers. I regularly suggest that you should only have three numbers that you focus on daily – that reflect “what is going on right now in the business.”
You should be able to discern what is going on from the daily trend of these numbers. Sure – you’ll look at plenty of other numbers, but these are the three you focus on every day. You don’t need fancy tech for this – just a white board.
If you are a BSG fan, you’ll recall the white board behind President Roslin’s desk. It has one number on it. The number of survivors alive at that moment. This number started showing up in the opening credits some time in Season 2, and after a few episodes I noticed it changing each time in the credits, often based on what had happened in the previous episode.
This is BSG’s KPI. The number of humans alive. Right now.
When I reflect on this KPI, I realize it drives all the behavior on BSG. The easy behavior to focus on is keeping the number from decreasing. But as Gauis eloquently states late in Season 2, if the trend line continues, based on a complex regression analysis he’s done, the human species will be extinct in 18 years. Soon after, Admiral Adama reminds Roslin that the number generally just goes down, and that Roslin had said early on that if the human species is to survive, the colony needs to start “making babies.”
This is an obvious set up for a much more complex social issue – that of pro-life vs. pro-choice. But obvious set up aside, Adama is focusing on the KPI and reminding Roslin that the goal is for it go up, as well as not go down. It turns out there is a lot of richness in the number.
In my world, as companies grow, I notice a proliferation of KPIs being tracked. On a periodic basis, I encourage CEOs to keep paying attention to all the numbers, but surface – on a daily basis – the three magic numbers that drive their business.
Do you know your three magic numbers?
I’m doing a one hour CEO roundtable on an “about weekly basis” with each of the Techstars classes. Yesterday I did a face to face with the Techstars Boulder CEOs (they are across the hall from my office) and then I did my meetings with the Techstars Chicago CEOs and the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator CEOs by video conference.
This is a new experiment for me. I’m trying a different approach to mentoring the Techstars teams this year. I’m still a lead mentor for two of the Boulder teams (Kato and SnowShoe) but for all the other programs, including Boulder, I’m trying a weekly one hour CEO only session.
One of my big goals is to generate more peer interaction between the CEOs of the various companies. We do this aggressively within the Foundry Group portfolio and it’s one of the really powerful things about Techstars. But historically it’s been adhoc and random, rather than in an organized way. This is an effort to get the CEOs to really bond with every one of the other CEOs during the program.
So far the experiment is working great from my perspective. I’m stunned by the depth of the conversation and I can see the relationship dynamics being very broad as well as intellectually and emotionally intense.
Each of the three meetings yesterday were totally different, as Techstars Boulder is in week 8, Techstars Chicago is in week 4, and Kaplan EdTech is in week 2. As I was taking a shower this morning, I kept thinking about the rant I went on during the last 10 minutes of the meeting with the Techstars Chicago CEOs.
By week 4, a team is deep in things. The stress is showing. Everyone is tired and working at their max capacity. They’ve been exposed to a wide range of mentors and lots of conflicting data. Stuff is breaking all the time. Everything is uncomfortable and – in some cases – distressing.
In reaction to a particular conversation, I strung together quotes from three of my favorite books about entrepreneurship. The rant went as follows:
- “It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” – John Galt in Atlas Shrugged
- “Fear is the mind-killer.” – the Bene Gesserit is Dune
- “Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego. You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all.” – Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I used the quotes as the anchors on a longer rant, but I did it extemporaneously. I hadn’t realized how nicely these quotes fit together until this particular moment, prompted by the particular situation. In hindsight, the only quote I forgot was my favorite of all time – “Do or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda.
And – it reminded me that three books should be on every Startup CEO’s reading list along with Matt Blumberg’s new book, Startup CEO.