Who doesn’t love criticism? Haha. Me, too.
Big Red Car here on a grayish day in the ATX. Getting a new roof, so I have to get finished quick as the mortar fire (the dropping of bundles of shingles on the roof from height) starts in three, two, one! Bam!
OK, so today we talk about the breakfast of champions — criticism. Who doesn’t love some criticism?
So, when you’re a writer, you join a couple of writer’s confabs. You go to some coffee shop — dude, it has to be a coffee shop because coffee shops kept the light of learning aglow during the Dark Ages, right? before Starbucks even — and bring 2-3,000 words of you latest masterpiece with which to WOW your fellow writers. You feel it?
Criticism — sounds painful, Big Red Car
Except, snowflake, your piece sucks and the other vicious writers are going to savage it. The other writers have degrees in creative writing and are in their twenties with bad skin, wearing skinny jeans. You don’t like taking criticism from acned kids wearing skinny jeans, but you want to get better and somebody told you this was the Chisholm Trail to getting better, so you launch.
There’s an old guy who has four books on Amazon. You slyly bought one and thought, “This is good. Way better than my stuff.”
It depressed you because the guy comes to the meetings in dirty shorts and a tee shirt he clearly slept in. He knows more vocabulary words than the rest of the group and can use them in sentences on the fly. Plus, he’s filled to overflowing with stories. You have no stories.
It takes five years to become even a mildly competent writer. Five freakin’ years.
Lots of people quit because they get whipped by seques, story arcs, plot lines, adverbs. Fuck adverbs.
They struggle to figure out if the denouement is the same thing as the climax. When they find out they aren’t they say, “Damn. This is complicated.”
They get killed by the criticism.
Big Red Car, what does this have to do with CEOing?
Dear Reader, as a CEO, it also takes some time to feel comfortable — ooops, my mistake. You never really feel comfortable, do you?
It takes some time to beat back the panic, lower your heart rate, and to function. Comfortable? Maybe not.
In much the same way as the fledgling writer throws his masterpiece on the table and let’s the jackals tear it apart, the CEO sketches out a Vision, Mission, Strategy and lets the world evaluate it. They are writings and the world will savage them, given a chance.
The higher you climb on the CEO totem pole, the more of your ass the world can see and take shots at. The world likes finding a typo in your work.
The world is vicious. But, that’s fine. You’re a fighter.
The Savagery of Criticism
The other members of your writers’ group read your piece, make faces like someone in the room has introduced a malodorous cloud, and write indecipherable red-inked notes in the margins, defiling your treasure.
When your piece comes up for discussion, they go around the room and share their observations.
“I have no idea what the plot of your story is. Can you explain that? No, on second thought, please don’t.”
“No narrative hook. I’ve seen more narrative hook in a Sears Roebuck catalog.” Ouch!
“I find none of your characters to be even remotely interesting. No depth. No development. No interest. I meet more interesting characters in the line at the grocery.”
“My Shih Tzu, Rufus, the one with a single good eye, could better this crap. Great title.”
And, so it goes.
You evaluate the worthiness of the comments based on the person’s authority, skills, and their own writing.
The guy with sixteen published stories, says, “I know a good editor. She can help you. All you need is a journeyman-like development edit, three passes. A good copy edit and then you’ll require a proof read from someone with good eyesight. It’s not too bad, really. Needs some work. Reminds me of my stuff twenty-five years ago.”
That night, you go home and say, “Maybe I can do this.”
The Savagery of CEO Criticism
In a similar manner, you as CEO will receive criticism and feedback from your co-founders, employees, investors, board members, bankers, and customers. The customer feedback is the most important.
At first, you think, “God, I suck.” And, you are correct. But it is not a life sentence, and there is an opportunity for parole. It requires work.
You want to cry and then you want to take a contract out on that board member who is never satisfied.
But, like the fledgling writer, you slowly master your craft. You do something for a second time and it’s easier than the first. You listen where before you only spoke. In that listening, you hear something you never heard before. You adopt it. You try it. It works.
You seek out wise counsel, you take notes, you bare your soul, and you grow. Two months later, you can’t recognize the guy in the mirror who sounds like you but is different.
After a board meeting that pain in the ass board member stops before he leaves, sticks his head in your office, and says, “Good board meeting today, CEO.”
The Secret. Big Red Car, Tell Me!
The secret is there are no secrets in either writing or CEOing. Sorry.
But there is technique. You listen to criticism. You write it down.
When enough time has transpired that you no longer contemplate murder, you evaluate it and say, “Shit. They’re right. No narrative hook. I can fix that.”
As a CEO, you say, “Shit, he’s right. That plan is lame, but I can fix that.”
Soon, you compare the previous product and the current product.
“Damn, it is better. I incorporated the criticism and it’s better. I can see it’s better. That single eyed Shih Tzu could see it’s better.”
And, that, dear reader, is when you begin to have a Chinaman’s Chance of becoming a good CEO. Not a great one, but a competent one.
Coach, Gray Haired Eminence, Mentor
But, you don’t want to be a “good” CEO, you want to become a great one. You want to give advice to Peter Drucker. You want the brass ring and all of its cousins.
So, you find a gray haired eminence, someone who was a CEO for a few decades. You buy him a cup of coffee, you write him a handwritten note, you take him to breakfast.
When the student is ready, the teacher appears. And, you, dear CEO, are ready.
You may hire a CEO coach.
You do NOT confide in anyone who can fire you. Think about that, please. Be skeptical of investors, venture capitalists, board members. If they see you are struggling, they will whip out their rolodexes (so charming the archaic notion of a rolodex, no?) and look for your replacement.
As a startup CEO, you have 6-12 months. The writer has five years.
You do not panic, because you remember what a Big Red Car told you — you’re smart enough, you’re articulate enough, people like you, and you can do this.
You laugh, because, face it — you’re taking advice from a 1966 Impala convertible with an Internet connection.
You come to work early, you stay late, you work through lunch three days a week, you read an hour about your industry every day. You shoot, move, and communicate [sorry, that’s the Army, my bad].
You remember this advice came from a Big Red Car whose owner was a CEO for three and a third decades and who is a published writer. Somehow, he lived through the savagery. You can and will also. Bring on the jackals!
You are a storyteller and your story has a happy ending. Because you wrote it, CEO.