This post is written from a slightly different perspective as it is spawned by three conversations of about a year ago wherein VCs asked me what I thought about replacing CEOs and what the ideal process might be.
About five years ago, I had a chat with the younger brother of a successful CEO. The older brother was a friend of mine of longstanding and through him I met the younger brother.
The younger brother was in awe of his big brother — All State Basketball First Team kind of awe. We got to talking about his brother, the CEO/Founder, in that capacity. He was, admittedly, very good. Plus, he was a good guy with that aura of a winner that guys like that have.
“I could never do what he does,” said brother younger. “He just knows what to do. He’s a natural.” It was a serious lament, so I told him the following:
1. No CEO/Founder ever knew everything he/she needed to know before they started the company even if it is their fifth company.
If you are a startup, I hope one day soon you get to $10,000,000 in gross revenue. If you do, I have some thoughts for you.
A caveat first — there are a great number of exceptions to what I am going to share with you, so do not fall prey to missing the difference of your situation or embracing every word I say, but there are reasons big and small as to why I hold these views.
There is nothing as gratifying in my CEO coaching than watching hardworking CEOs, founders, entrepreneurs blossom and develop.
Right now is a time whereat a CEO is exposed to the business friction of the COVID19 saga. In this friction, one finds the revealed strength of CEOs. Frankly, not everyone has it while everyone needs it.
When you see a CEO with whom you have worked blossom and rise to the occasion, it is extraordinarily gratifying and just makes you want to sing Hosanna!
Amongst the characteristics I see with this subset are the following:
1. The CEOs who undergo transformation to a higher level of performance in times of crisis have done the work, day in day out over a protracted period of time. There are no overnight success stories. Sorry.
In times of crisis in business, the military, government those for whom you have responsibility will look to you for reassurance and guidance. It is part of the job. It is one of the most important parts of the job. You, amigo, are the reassurer.
Here is the big thing: Your people will only remember 5% of what you tell them, but they will remember 95% of how you told them and how it made them feel.
This is the part of the job that is called being the Reassurer-in-Chief.
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!
If you are a founder, entrepreneur, startup CEO then you are familiar with the notion of transforming chaos into order. [OK, let me say — “I hope you are.” However, we both know it is not as well ingrained as we might hope.]
If you are an “aspirin” startup — meaning the raison d’etre of your love child is to reduce the pain of mankind, the chaos is the pain and the order is the pain free — or lessened pain — environment that results thereafter.
If you are a “vitamin” startup — meaning the raison d’etre of your little bastard is to improve the quality of life, the chaos is the inferior quality of the before and the order is the higher quality plane of the after.
There is a decided “before” v “after” transformation.
Bit extreme, but it makes my point. Guy lost a lot of weight? What a magical transformation. I imagine he feels a lot better. Took those bad eating habits and created some order, no?
This is the big month for a few things — Christianity, college basketball, and CEOs. It is all about believing.
For Christians, Easter is the essence of their belief. Jesus came to Earth to atone for our sins, lived amongst us, taught, provided a living example, offered a few miracles for the disbelievers, was crucified, died, and buried. On the third day, He rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father to judge the living and the dead.
If you are a Christian you believe the preceding paragraph to be a true statement. That belief — faith — is the glue that holds your life together. It is, literally, what makes you a Christ follower.
If you are a college basketball fan, next weekend is the Final Four and you believe with all your heart that your team is going to win it all.
You have had a tough time of it as the #1 seeds have been decimated — Duke, North Carolina, Gonzaga — leaving only Virginia to represent the elite and the Atlantic Coast Conference. ACC had three #1 seeds and only one remains.
You — like me — have been forced to transfer your allegiance to, say, Auburn University. War Eagle!
[Allow me to digress for just a second, WAR EAGLE! Is that a great motto or what? I went to a military school and we never came up with WAR EAGLE! Auburn was, once upon a time, a military school, but still. WAR EAGLE!]