01/13/20

Listening Until The . . . . . End

I was with a pal of mine named Charlie — no, his name is not really Charlie — and I received a call from a former CEO coaching client who is a big deal these days. BIG DEAL.

I say to Charlie, “Let me talk to this guy.” We’re sitting under a grape arbor at a restaurant drinking expensive latte that Charlie insisted on rather than good, old fashioned black coffee. Charlie has forgotten more about the CEO business than I will ever know and I was at it for 33+ years.

I start listening to the guy, the CEO — giving off the vibe of his hair on fire. Burning hair has a distinctive odor you can smell if you have 5G cell service.

“Take your time and tell me exactly what the problem is,” says I. I listen for a long time with a few “got it” type comments thrown in.

When the CEO finishes, I ask, “What else?” He remembers a few other things.

During this convo, I have whipped out my notebook and pen and taken some notes. I am sipping on my latte under the grape arbor — a pergola. The sun is on my face, a slight breeze is cooling me, I am alive and well in Austin By God Texas. Life is good. My CEO, a former client, has called me with a problem and I think I can help him. Is this a great country or what?

“What else?” I ask. He adds one last thing.

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12/20/19

Grading CEOs After the Pay Window Closes

Merry Christmas, y’all, from Austin By God Texas where it is cold and gray.

So, several years ago, a CEO who I had advised for a few years and who had taken his company to the pay window asked me, “What kind of a CEO was I?”

He didn’t mean in a Performance Appraisal way, but more as a final, historic debrief of his entire tenure. [His bank account suggested he’d been a good CEO.]

It was an easy conversation because the guy was crackerjack and I told him so.

The conversation went on and he wanted to know, “How did I develop along the way?”

That was a deeper conversation and I agreed to go back and consult my notes rather than give him a saccharine, off-the-cuff, in-the-light-emanating-from-the-pay-window reply.

When I did consult my notes, we had a very useful conversation: useful to him because it validated some things he was thinking, and useful to me because I had a good chance to see what impact I might have had on his journey.

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12/15/19

The Feel For Running A Business

There are a great many things in life in which there is an element of earthy knowledge that I call “The Feel.” The Feel is real.

In my own life, I’ve run businesses for more than 33 years and have advised others for 8 years, ran Army units for 5 years. One of the big differences I find is the comfort with which a CEO is able to settle into the job and run the business, not solely by feel, but with a sense of feeling they know what they are doing.

I experienced this notion in a number of different undertakings:

There is a moment when you are sailing a largish sailboat when the wind, the sails, the heel of the boat, the current, the swells, the point of sail are all in perfect equilibrium. You can hear the wind wind singing in the shrouds. You are in the slot and you can feel it. If you let the wheel go, the boat stays obediently on that point of sail until one of those elements change. This is The Feel and, baby, you’ve got it.

When you are landing an airplane in a crosswind, you have to dip the upwind wing, you stand on the rudder, you control the speed, you manage the angle of attack, you tease the throttle — done well, the plane obeys and while it is wont to move about on short final because of the crosswind, it does not. The plane touches the upwind wheel, gently puts the other one down, you keep a bit of that rudder in, and you roll down the centerline of that runway. Because you have mastered The Feel of it.

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12/6/19

Field Expedient

As the CEO/Founder of a startup, you will develop practices that you know work. Many times, these practices will not be perfectly “normal.” They will reflect your own personal style or they will be things that you just know work.

These are what I call field expedients.

Back in the day, when I was a combat engineer officer overseas, I had a damn good sergeant who worked for me. We were blowing up old fortifications in South Korea just south of the DMZ. When we demolished them, we cut all the rebar with cutting torches, removed the concrete pieces with dozers, dug a big hole, and buried the detritus (reinforced concrete). I used to recover all the steel and send it down to Seoul.

Then, we rebuilt them — often in slightly different locations and to a substantially higher structural strength — to withstand then modern artillery.

Here’s a picture of what it looks like when 100 lbs of C4 is exploded underneath a shallow bridge abutment. The bridge abutment was in the way of our river crossing site if we had to attack into North Korea. So, me and another sergeant used scuba gear and wedged 100 lbs of C4 under it and voila!

Blasting Out Old Bridge Column

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11/7/19

Values >> Culture >> Reputation >> History

In the life-cycle of a company — be it a high tech startup or a paint manufacturer — the initial culture of the company is grown from the seed corn of the founders’ values.

The first challenge for any founder is to codify his/her values while recognizing that she/he owns the culture when the ink is still wet on the founding documents.

The culture is a living organism in much the same way that yeast provides life to dough and water to somehow magically become bread when presented to fire.

It is important to think about culture, but it will happen whether you think about it or not.

If you fail to think about and nurture your culture, then it will become whatever organism is blowing through the air. [The air is different in Silicon Valley than it is in, say, Austin By God Texas. Know this.]

In thinking about culture, go here: The Company Culture Series — a collection of 14 blog posts on the subject of culture.

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10/25/19

Ownership v Stewardship For The CEO Class

Stewardship — huh?

It is cold in the ATX this morning — 48F, but it will be 62F this afternoon and 82F on Saturday. I may lay off the sunscreen today, but back on it on Saturday.

So, about a year and a half ago, I’m speaking with a recently exited CEO who is in that special place that drives the question, “What’s next? Is there a second act?”

Luckily for him, this question of a second actship (see what I did right there, made that word up) is not really a pressing issue as the financial outcome provides breathing room for a couple of centuries — maybe a millenium — at his current burn rate.

So, we get to discussing, “What did you really learn? What do you leave with other than money?”

We get into the discussion of ownership v stewardship.

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10/4/19

Product Positioning — May I Please Have A Hard Seltzer?

Somewhere in the dark recesses of your mind is a thought trying to break its way into your consciousness — it is repeating a mantra: Product, Price, Placement, Promotion — maybe joined by: Positioning, People, Packaging. A lot of P’s.

Image it like a Gregorian Chant coming at you like a throbbing headache.

Do you recognize the basics of marketing? Yes you do.

Product

Packaging

Price

People

Placement

Positioning

Promotion

Could there be some overlap in these subjects? Sure, but work with me on this.

Today, we talk about the positioning of a relatively new product — hard seltzer.

Hard seltzer is an emerging product with $295MM in sales last year. It is not yet an important slice of the beer, wine, and spirits market, but it suggests, and illuminates an interesting phenomenon.

You have to position your product for the audience you want to attract and appeal to. Getting out in front of the competition in an emerging market is always a big of all right, no?

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09/29/19

We Work Obituary

I suppose it is obligatory to write an obituary for We Work given that we wrote about the company and its Initial Public Offering several times already.

On the final turn around the track to price and issue its Initial Public Offering stock to the public, the company “postponed” its IPO.

At the same time, they pulled the plug on their founder CEO, Adam Neumann for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Wait, sorry. Got confused for a second.

Neumann “stepped down” and the lead investor, SoftBank through its Vision Fund, took action to right the sinking ship.

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