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.

“So, amigo, what does that mean?” asks your Big Red Car.

“It means, you bag of rusty auto parts,” the now former-CEO says, “that I did not really own the company; the company owned me. You told me that, but I wasn’t wise enough to understand what you meant. Now, I think I do.”

We both laugh because he recalls my specifically telling him something very much like that a few years ago. He was skeptical at the time.

When you start a company, you inject your intellectual DNA and your physical effort into creating a living enterprise. Hopefully, you do it with a couple of co-founders, but this particular CEO did not. He quickly filled out the C-suite and the top management, but they were not there when the baby was conceived.

[Digression; One of the reasons I am high on female founders is the whole birth experience meme. I think that a young woman — even if she hasn’t had a baby — has an immense advantage in their knowledge of the whole childbirth legend. Startups and having babies (who can’t tell you why they are crying) are parallel experiences. A young mother with a baby gets the fragile nature of a startup like no young man ever can. But, I digress.]

“So, the learnings?”

“I learned that everybody was looking to me to provide the vision. That once I had done that, they were content to follow my vision. It meant I had to get it right.”

“Did you?” I asked.

“Eventually,” he says laughing. Like most startups there was a pivot wherein he had the courage to say, “I think we need to nudge the helm 45 degrees to starboard, fellas.”

“What else?”

“I was holding other people’s money in my hands. School teachers. Every once in a while when I was feeling sorry for myself for working so hard, I’d envision that school teacher and her pension. I got back to  work. I was holding other people’s financial livelihood in my hands. Employees, vendors, investors, shareholders, lots of stakeholders.”

“How did that make you feel?”

“Scared at first, but you helped me to understand it was par for the course.” I had told him of looking into the hundred foot deep foundation of a high rise I built when I was 30 and thinking, ‘Wow, I better not screw this up cause there is a lot of money riding on it.'” I did not. He did not.

“Can I tell you one more thing?”


“Remember when I used to call you and ask what it meant when I was feeling scared, my heart was pounding?”


“Remember what you used to tell me? You used to tell me, ‘Sorry, that’s normal.’ I used to hate that. I didn’t want it to be normal.'”


“I eventually figured out it was normal. Damn it.”

We both laughed. We were drinking coffee at the time. Nobody spit their coffee out, but we had a good laugh.

“Remember what else you used to tell me about normal? Let me tell you: ‘The only normal people in the world are the ones you don’t know very well.'”

“What else did you learn?” asks mois.

“I learned that I don’t have to do it all by myself. I could hire good people, give them clear direction, give them the resources to get the job done, and get out of their way. It was probably my best learning. I learned how to delegate.”

“Great lesson. I watched you learn how to do that. You were extraordinary at it. Did you know that?”

“No. I never really understood that I was getting better. The bigger we got, the bigger the problems got.”

“But you only got bigger because you solved those problems. What else?”

“I finally understood your mantra, ‘Don’t make perfect the enemy of good enough.’ Or is it the other way around?”

We laughed.

“Does it make any difference now?” I asked.

“No. But I get it.”

“How did it work out with the board? They happy?”

“It took a long time for us to get in step. You kept telling me to deal with them in a certain way. It took more than a year, but I finally got it right. I do remember one thing you told me. Never confide my fears, my personal fears, in the board.”


“Cause they would fire me. I have to tell you that in a lot of ways selling the company was me escaping the noose. They weren’t going to fire me, but the better we did, the more they expected. When we were profitable and didn’t need to raise any money, things changed.”

“Would you work with the same bunch again?”

“Sure, but I would know how to do it from day one. I’d never go through that experience again. Everybody was an expert, but they’d never actually run a company. They wouldn’t think of me in the same way.”

“Did you own the company?”

“Asked and answered, Big Red Car. Got that from you by the way. It owned me and I was the steward for all of those different interests. I get it. Not exactly what I thought it would be like, but I get it.”

“Lonely at the top?” I asked.

“Pure baloney. Being CEO was a great job. No hair shirt. No suffering. When we started to make money, it was magical. I met a lot of other CEOs. I was never lonely. If I was, I called you. Was I a pest?”

“Not at all. In fact, I wish in retrospect you had called more often. It worked out fine.”

“I remember one other thing you told me. ‘Nobody ever drowned in their own sweat.'”

“True, isn’t it? What’s next?” I asked.

“I’m going to take a year off and read all those books you told me I had to read before I started the company. About time I did that. I’m going to go back through my Moleskine notebooks and see if I can trace the path I took. What else do I need to do?”

“You need to go see, write a handwritten note to everyone who helped you along the way — including college professors. You need to write some checks to charities. You need to go see your parents and spend a month with them. Tell you father and mother exactly what you did, how you did it, and that the way they raised you made it all possible. Buy a house for your kid sister.”

“All of that could take some time. But, I have time. I’m going to surf Rincon in January.”

“Been there. The waves are huge in Rincon in January, amigo.”

“Yeah, but I can do big things now.”

“Yes, you can. Good luck, my friend.”

“Good luck my ass. What did you used to tell me: ‘Get up early, stay late, work hard, spend an hour a day reading about your profession — your luck will improve.'”

“Were you lucky?” I asked.

“You’re damn right I was.”

A year later, the CEO had done all of that and called me. “Hey, I have an idea for a company. Can I bounce it off you?”

If you start a company. You will not own it. It will own you. One day you will understand that you  are a steward of what life has given to you. It will unlock the magic in your soul and if you do it right, you will surf Rincon in January when the big swells come home. And, they will be no problem. Stewardship, it’s what’s for breakfast in the C-suite.

But, hey, what the Hell do I know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Is this a great country or what? Is this a great time to be alive? Call your parents. Go have coffee with a pal you haven’t seen in too long.