Grayish, cool day in the ATX which gets me thinking about the journey a startup CEO makes from ignorance to wisdom — OK, you do know that’s the journey, right?
As a young leader, I knew next to nothing about everything — so I thought, but I did have an advantage as I’d been in the Army for five years and had run largish outfits. My last command was 600 men in a unit that should have been 186 (The Army was contracting form Vietnam War levels and discharging a lot of draftees. I housed, fed, trained, disciplined them until their magic date arrived — a wild bunch. What a nightmare.).
Truly, everything I ever needed to know to be a CEO I learned in that assignment, but I just didn’t know it. I was 25.
I was young and dumb. I was drinking from the Fountain of Youth and Inexperience. There was a long line to get a cup of that stuff.
Some thirty-three years later, I was filled to overflowing with wisdom and experience, so much so that today I advise startup CEOs and assist venture capitalists prying their fully funded oxen out of ditches.
I can’t quite put my finger on when I stopped bathing in the Fountain of Youth and took up station in the Fountain of Wisdom and Experience. I just know I did.
OK, it was probably five years until I even knew there was such a thing.
Read your Malcolm Gladwall Outliers to learn why it takes five years.
The Fountain of Youth
When you are young you can do anything because you don’t know the stuff you shouldn’t be doing. <<<< Reread that sentence. That’s real wisdom. Hard to believe, but true as Hell.
A lot of startup CEOs, if they had even a smidgen of experience and wisdom, would not take on the challenge of a startup.
They would rationalize it out of their brains — “Hell, no, that’s dumb. That won’t ever work. Better to just get a job.”
Sometimes, being dumb is a gift. You just don’t know better, so you do something the rest of the world would never try because they’re smart as a whip.
I started a commercial real estate business in Austin By God Texas on the day that the wizards at the Wall Street Journal said Austin was the “worst real estate market in America” and had a thirty year supply of single family lots — a measure of real estate health.
Three years later, you couldn’t buy a lot and my real estate company was thriving. I was too dumb to make a smart decision. Thank goodness.
Thirteen years later, I was an overnight success, had 500 employees, and rarely read the Wall Street Journal.
So, the notion that a young CEO is swimming in the fountain of youthful ignorance may be the best damn thing that ever happened to her.
We know what we know.
We may know what we don’t know.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
Years earlier, when I was twenty-three years old, I didn’t know how to build a floating bridge across a wide river, but I was damn sure I could because everybody kept telling me that was what combat engineers did.
Hell, I was a combat engineer, a paratrooper, a Ranger — why couldn’t I do that? Here is your sheep dipped Fountain of Youth/Inexperience still sopping wet. It is a purely terminal condition. If you pay attention.
So, I did.
The Fountain of Wisdom/Experience
Some time well after that when I was building high rise office buildings, I learned how to run a company based on Vision, Mission, Strategy, Tactics, Objectives, Values, and Culture.
I codified all of the things that I had learned into a system. When I was on my second startup, it was so much easier than the first. I just dusted off my system and put it to work saving countless days because I had a system.
Number eight was a robot.
When you have a system and it is in writing, you can tell the story better, you can attract better talent, you can raise money in an orderly manner, and you can sleep better.
Today, I help startup CEOs to take this disciplined approach which frees lots of time to make big mistakes, but every startup makes mistakes.
[Pro tip: This is one of the reasons why the US Securities and Exchange Commission in Sarbanes-Oxley requires public companies to document their “critical processes” IAW Section 404. It is a superb idea. But, I digress. Forgive me.]
I had begun to drink from the fountain of wisdom/experience and I knew what I was doing. They were thimble sized quaffs, but I could taste them and I developed a thirst for bigger portions.
When I got out of the CEOing business, I had learned the valuable lesson of delegating my entire job, of creating systems, of documenting systems, of conducting quality control inspections, of implementing checklists (Atul Guwunde, The Checklist Manifesto — read it, y’all) and of managing by wandering around.
When I wandered around, folks might have thought I was aimless and undirected, but I was going down a checklist. I would want to know what a person’s personal situation was — remember as a CEO, you own everybody’s problems — how they were doing on the job, was their pay fair, and what did they know that they were sure I didn’t know, but I needed to know.
I also used to conduct Anonymous Company Surveys, study the results, and act on them. That last part — acting on them — is important because folks won’t be open with you if you pick their brains and do nothing.
I was drinking from the Fountain of Wisdom/Experience BIG TIME.
Bottom line it, Big Red Car
OK, startup CEO, here it is.
It is fine to be dumb as a door nail when you start up a company. Not dumb about the product, but the business of business.
There is a reason why young men fight our wars, the old guys are too smart to get sucked into that briar patch.
Begin the journey, looking for the Fountain of Wisdom/Experience on your second day on the job. The hard part is to believe that it exists.
Once you get a drink of that rarefied water, you will become an addict. The key is to live until that happens.
So, there you have it, dear CEO — the Fountain of Youth/Ignorance versus the Fountain of Wisdom/Experience.
Get some. Now.