You Exist To Get More Out Of Them

This post expands on a post from mid 2021 titled Trillion Dollar Coach – Install #1“. In that post, I was summarizing some key management and leadership points from a book about Bill Campbell. Yet I see this same issue over and over again. A manager or leader is dealing with a lot. The team is struggling, or missing some key roles, or just not super strong. And the executive rolls up their sleeves and starts to “do”. They help execute and are directly impacting results with their efforts and contribution. This is of course sometimes a very necessary and appropriate part of being a leader and teammate. However, it is not the manager/leader’s primary role. And too often executives forget that. They get lost in “doing”.

The primary role of a leader/manager/executive is to get more out of their team than they would be capable of on their own. The positioning I often use with executives is “Look, you have direct reports. If those direct reports don’t produce better results due to your active management of them, why does the the organization need you? If they can do just as well without that role, do we need the role?” People often lost site of this. A manager’s primary job is to get more out of their team than they would be capable of on their own. Period.

There’s obviously a lot that goes into that – assembling the best team you can, helping them grow, keeping them focused on the most important things this week, this month, this quarter. Having one-on-ones, making sure their relationships with their peers is solid, making sure they have access to the resources they need to succeed, etc. But it’s critical to remember – all of these activities should be in service of making sure the team is as productive as they can be. And more productive than if you weren’t there doing those things.

People can be frustrating. They don’t do things as well as you could. Or as fast as you could. They can be rude. They can be selfish. And this is exactly why management is hard. Despite all that, your job is get results from them. Keep that at the top of your focus and your results as a leader will grow.

Don’t Keep Score in the Arena of Ideas

Working collaboratively can be incredibly rewarding, and if done well will often lead to great results. It can also be very frustrating depending on whose on the team and whose in charge.

A leadership skill that is important to consider for anyone who is responsible for the results of high performance teams is making sure the best ideas not only come to the surface, but that the best ideas win. As the bulk of my career has been spent in investing and the transaction environment, much of my leadership has been around trying to drive toward progress and success in incredibly dynamic environments. And it’s in those types of environments in particular that the best ideas can make or break results.

As a leader, you have likely heard stories of how successful executives give their opinion last in a meeting in order to not stifle other conclusions, ideas or disagreements. This is a great tool which, depending on how much time you have, can lead to great results and growth in other members of the team. It can (and will) also lead to mistakes. But again, depending on what’s at stake, letting someone make a mistake and learn from it can help them grow.

It is likely you have also come across leaders who seem to want to keep score as to which ideas, which contributions, make it into the final decision or work product. They are in fact slighted if at least some of their fingerprint doesn’t end up in the final decision or product. This in my opinion is a mistake and a vestige of a hierarchical mindset, not a mindset where the best ideas win. I offer two specific examples of incredibly successful leaders who have evolved over their careers to take the “best ideas win” approach.

Steve Jobs had the reputation as a dictator early in his career. And he made some damn good decisions – as well as some horrible ones. However, later in his career, he appears to have grown in understanding that if you want the most out of a high performance team, you have to let the best ideas win. In fact in his last interview with Walt Mossberg in 2010, Jobs said If you wanna hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to let them make a lot of decisions and you have to run be ideas not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win, otherwise good people don’t stay.

Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, one of the worlds most successful hedge funds, uses the term idea meritocracy for the culture at his firm. And Dalio worries a lot about culture. He acknowledges his arena of ideas isn’t for everyone as some have considered the culture brutal. If your ideas don’t stack up, you hear about it. But the best ideas win. As they always should.

So as you continue to evolve as a leader and teammate, and as you continue to strive to build high performance teams that can produce incredible results, hopefully you will keep this maxim in mind. In the arena of ideas, don’t keep score. May the best ideas win. Wherever they come from.

If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will…

The entire quote is from several thousand years ago… Epictetus supposedly said “If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest.”

Stoicism has featured prominently in my recent reading/listening habits. And this phrase in particular is one that resonates with me. You may be wondering what this has to do with investing, growing and leading teams, businesses, etc. The answer is pretty simple. Your ability to impact yourself, anyone else, or a team, are directly related to who you are and how you behave. And those two things are a straight line from what you choose to consume.

I have also gone down a “free will” rabbit hole recently with some Sam Harris writings and podcasts. His work is really thought provoking. Whether one buys into it or not, if you are open minded he will make you think. For me, it seems largely to be semantics, and I am sure Sam would probably disagree. That said, for the sake of this post, I am going to assume that we indeed do have the ability to choose what we expose ourselves too. At least over the long term.

However, the real point I wanted to make here was more about the other side of this equation. By that I mean, what energy are you exposing others to? In your writing? Your emails, texts, meeting notes, etc.? In your conversations? In your contributions in meetings, at lunches, in the hallway? On a Zoom? On the shop floor? You have precious few moments to consume the right kind of thoughts and images, and even fewer precious moments to provide thoughts an images to others in the hope of nudging or directing them forward. Toward a focus, a goal, a better place. If you approach your own actions in that way – as a rare opportunity to be the thoughts and images someone else consumes – your intentions stand a better chance of hitting home and possibly making a difference. If you are a leader, or a manager – or a friend, spouse, or family member – use your opportunities to intersect others with energy with intention and precision. You won’t always hit the mark, and you will often wish you would have done it differently. But over time, if you are intentional, you can make a difference to yourself, and to others.

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time

The wisdom of Maya Angelou is often served as a stiff shot of the obvious with a humility backer. This quote has popped up in numerous things I have read or seen recently, and given my last post was about “trust” – it seemed like a good follow-up.

After several decades in the investing/advising world, mainly to smaller businesses, this Maya A. quote resonates more and more with me. Inevitably, how you treat people in life and business speaks volumes. It is your body of work. It is who you are. I am an engineer by background. I love to attack, break down, and try to solve challenging problems. I also really enjoy working with teams to try and hone their focus, their communication, their performance, etc. And for better or worse, I have fallen victim more than once to ignoring this rule.

Certainly, people have challenging circumstances in their career. Some things go well, some things do not. But if you see any pattern of head scratching behavior or past concerns, your radar should light up. Brightly. Success or failure isn’t necessarily the data point. How did they treat people? In the world of institutional investing in small/growth businesses this challenge can be exacerbated. Someone who has built a business up over decades likely has done so with trust and good business practices. How long have they had their customers? Their employees? Their vendors/service providers? The hardest part is often getting them to trust you as a buyer or investor. And to not give them a reason to see something different than who you really are.

As for who you partner with, who you spend your time with – therein has been the challenge sometimes for me. I have been blessed with many extraordinary long-term relationships with individuals in whom trust is well placed. And yet I have also ignored signals and wasted a great deal of time with some who indeed showed me who they are, but I ignored it. I used excuses like “Yes, buy they’ve never treated me that way, and in fact have always treated me with mutual respect…” It felt as if was trust was well placed. Until it wasn’t.

In the world of investing, you come across some very polished characters. Whose financial success precedes them and yet they seem humble, sincere. Any prior challenges, concerns, issues – they are explained away by well crafted, but one sided, stories. Here is what I have learned. Look at the data. What does IT show you? Not what someone says. Anything more than one, and certainly more than two, issues should lead you to move on. Maybe you’ll miss an opportunity, but that is better than waiting for them to really show you who they are. Because more than likely they really already did.

Trust – The Most Important Thing?

It’s easy to complicate business and investing. Fundamentally however, at the foundation of any successful long-term business is trust. Regardless of your business, if a customer does not trust the product, service or brand, your business will suffer. If your employees, investors, lenders, suppliers, etc. do not trust management or the organization, your business will suffer. While this seems obvious, it is regrettably not the foundation of how many people make business decisions, hiring decisions, partnering decisions, nor how they organize their day-to-day priorities.

For this post, I’m focusing on getting business done between individuals/your partners. Having spent several decades now in the financial services world as an investor and advisor to primarily small businesses, I have grown more skeptical, less trusting, and more appreciative of how important trust is. At its core, building trust is pretty simple. Do what you say you are going to do (be accountable), do not betray confidences, and communicate openly, transparently and often. In building a long deep relationship, there is obviously much more – active listening, looking out for your Partner(s), being vulnerable, etc. but first you have to seek to build and maintain trust.

There is an good YouTube audio of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger answering a question about how to know who to trust. They acknowledge how important trust is, yet they say they’ve been lucky. What comes through is that they are masters of assessing people quickly. Listening, watching body language, how someone answers questions, what they laugh at, etc. And they estimate their batting average is really high. But in the trenches of building a career, these can be hard lessons to learn. If you are raised a trusting individual – you may find this even more difficult. I know I have.

My approach has always been to trust until given a reason not to. And yes, I have been burned. Badly. Maybe it’s simply poor judgement, or bad luck, or 20+ years in financial services surrounded by a certain type of person. Regardless, I continue to try to learn and improve. To watch how to pick up signals. To work on listening – all forms. How does someone negotiate? How do they treat those who work for them? The simple “how do they treat the waiter”? In the end, trust must be earned and built up over time. And even in those circumstances, people can and will surprise you, disappoint you.

So what can you do? In the end, trust but verify is likely the best counsel. And verify constantly. Pay attention – close attention – and actively listen. Not just to spoken words, but how they write, text, treat others, behave in a meeting when no one is watching, etc. Ultimately, working closely with someone on a difficult situation is a great way to see what they are made of. But be warned – you will get burned. And the old adage of picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and seeing what there is to learn is likely the best you can do. That, and making sure you don’t behave the same way toward others.

Fix It As Fast As You Find It & Remember to Love Learning

A quick post after seeing an article a friend of mine shared on LinkedIn. The article is a summary of a short podcast interview with Michael Dell. The podcast is called 5 Questions with Dan Schawbel Podcast.

In the podcast, Dell is asked what he has learned that he believes made him a better business person. His first response is “fix it as fast as you find it.” This seems so simple, but it’s so true. Pretty much every day in business, whether you are mostly a leader or mostly an individual contributor, something will come up that is a problem. Dell’s advice, which resonates with my own experience as well as my observations across many organizations, is to tackle it – right away.

Michael goes on to say you may, in fact probably will, botch it the first time around. And then you will learn, and make a next effort. But you have to keep moving forward. You cannot leave problems to fester, or leave them for someone else to deal with. You must be prepared to chart a solution course, and have difficult conversations as / if necessary.

He also talks about how a learning bias and curiosity are two traits he believes have helped him succeed. And two traits he looks for in new executives and employees. This topic came up in a recent conversation with a very successful tech entrepreneur friend of mine. He had gone through some tough challenges recently, and I could tell he was not in a great place. He was carrying a heavy burden and struggling. However, recently when I spoke to him he was in a completely reversed state. I asked him what had happened. He simply said “I remembered how much I like to learn…” Such a great thing to keep front of mind. Every day we have a chance to learn new things. And it is with that open posture toward learning, progress and evolution that one often finds a groove in which to make progress and glean more enjoyment out of life.

TDC Final Installment – #3

This is the third and last post in a series about Bill Campbell and the book Trillion Dollar Coach written by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. Here are links to post1 and post2. In this post, I’ve tried to provide a handful of actionable takeaways on a few topics in hopes they may help you in your own leadership evolution. Like all coaching of this nature, the underlying concepts can be modified and applied to many situations.

As an aside, one of the things I have wrestled with (and lived through) personally is that in many smaller / growth oriented businesses you have to be both a doer and a leader. In other words, a player coach, sometimes heavily slanted toward player. This is not a simple situation as you have to balance these roles. Even CEOs of larger companies do not spend all of their time coaching. The conclusion is probably obvious – that is normal, and it’s ok. It simply means you have to think before your next interaction – what role and frame of mind should I be in for this conversation or interaction?

The CEO & Board Meetings

Bill worked a great deal with CEOs. While you may not be a CEO, these concepts can be modified for use in any situation of reporting out and communicating up in an organization. For CEOs, an important part of their role is working effectively with their Board. And it takes effort and thought to do it well, which I can tell you does not always happen. I have been in a lot of private company board meetings, and to be honest, many of them have been at best not as productive as they could be, and at worst completely dysfunctional. Here, I will focus on Bill’s perspective of the CEO’s role. A perspective I agree with.

Bill believed the CEO should manage board meetings. Ops, financial updates and other details must go out ahead of time, and the board must be given enough time to review them in advance. At the meeting, the CEO should assume the Board has reviewed the materials. I cannot tell you how many board meetings I have attended where the materials come out late / too close to the meeting, and / or sat through meetings in which the team just regurgitates what I and others have already reviewed. So get your team organized to get your materials out on time, assume your board has read them, and deliver the highlights that matter in the meeting.

For Bill, the agenda always started with a frank and open ops update. Succinctly, how is the company performing? What are the highlights and the lowlights? Your board needs to know how the company is doing. What is it doing well, and what is it not doing well? Interestingly, according to the book, he never sent the highlights section out in advance – or the board would obsess about the lowlights. I would add, that if there is a critical issue, problem, or crisis, the board meeting is NOT the time for the board to find out. You should strive to live by “good news travels fast, and bad news travels faster.” Other agenda items for Bill include financial and sales reports, product status updates and some key metrics around operational rigor (hiring, communications, marketing, etc.). Your actual agenda items will obviously be company specific.

Avoid Consensus, Facilitate Decisions, Focus on Immutable Truths

The book also spends a fair amount of real estate discussing Campbell’s philosophy on a manager’s role in decision making in an organization. In other posts I have explored some of Bill’s other fundamental maxims on a manger’s role, but here is a brief summary of an additional critical role – facilitating decision making and running decision making processes.

Campbell believed the best idea or the best solution was always the goal. Not consensus. In fact he hated consensus. As a leader, you must strive to ensure all perspectives are heard and considered, but that does not imply consensus. Debate is fine, but be careful about disagreements, particularly if they bleed into personal jabs. In business, there is always indecision, lack of clarity, and rarely a perfect answer. Bill drove his teams to focus on first principles, on immutable truths that are the foundation of the company, or of the product or service. If you keep bringing a decision making process back to focus through that lens, decisions are often easier. He also made sure to prioritize the right thing for the business. Every time – for the business, not an individual.

Get your 1:1s & Staff Meetings Right

As mentioned in a previous post, Bill often said that one of a leader’s key responsibilities was to try to ensure everyone was on the same page. Minor differences about what happened in a meeting, what next steps should be, or minor misunderstandings around goals and objectives can set an organization adrift toward muted progress or possibly disaster. So a big part of your 1:1s and your staff meetings is to ferret this out. Listen carefully to what is being said in response to questions, and try to make sure all are leaving on the same page. And then reinforce it. Over and over.

In 1:1s, he had a formula:

  • “Not so small talk” – he took an interest in, and cared about people and their lives. This matters to people.
  • Performance on Job Requirements – What is the person working on? Is there a crisis? How is it going? Can you help? Obviously, person, role and function specific, but you get the idea.
  • Peer-To-Peer Relationships – Campbell believed peer-to-peer relations were more important oftentimes than those above you. If you are not on the same page about priorities, can’t leverage cross-functional help via understanding their needs and priorities and do not have a personal relationship, you will be less effective and successful. And so will the team. As an aside, I have often asked executives “who among your functional peers do you talk with least?” and then ask them to spend time with that person proactively before the next meeting.
  • Managing & Leading Teams – Next, Campbell would check in on the team. Was direction being set clearly and reinforced constantly? Who needs course correction or guidance to make them better? Are your direct reports guiding / coaching their teams? Are they weeding out poor performers and bad apples? Are they hiring well?
  • Innovation – Bill tried to make sur teams made room for innovation. It can often slip as it tends to have a longer duration than the current crisis, but functional innovation helps organizations get better.

Finally, in his coaching sessions he was also fluid. He would sometimes walk in with a list of 5 topics and would ask the other party to do the same. The lists could be compared or merged. Or sometimes he might not even bring his out if it was clear the required coaching needed to focus on the executive’s list.

I would like to close this series with a thank you to the authors Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. Additionally a thank you to Ben Horowitz who in various writings and at various times has discussed Campbell and his impact on his development and career. Someone like Bill Campbell often flies under the radar of a narrative about a successful company or executive, but leadership and coaching are roles that very few take to naturally. While we each develop our own style, there is a lot to be learned from Bill Campbell, and without this book, much of his wisdom would not be widely available. In the end, Bill cared about people and about teams. If we all just did a little more of that, I am convinced our lives would be richer in many ways.

Trillion Dollar Coach – Installment #2

In my last post, I introduced a few notes about one of my favorite books. Trillion Dollar Coach was written about Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. If you have never read the book, and aspire to be a strong manger or leader of teams, I could not recommend it more highly. Bill “coached” many of the top entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. This after he was a CEO (both successful and failed) and a football coach (by wins and losses not a huge success). The lore is that many young buck CEOs would bristle at the idea of a “coach” to help them and their business succeed. That is until they met and worked with Bill.

You, As A Manager, Have To Think Like A Coach

You may not have the luxury of a coach, or a board member, investor or mentor who behaves like a coach. So you may have to figure it out on your own. In the world of Bill C, what were some of the things that he focused on and taught people?

  • As a Coach, you must work with individuals AND with the team to…
    • Smooth out tension
    • Continuously nurture community
    • Make sure all are aligned around a common vision and set of goals
  • You must strive to move beyond controlling – beyond evaluating, supervising, rewarding, punishing – and TOWARD a climate of communication, respect, feedback and trust. And you can do this all through thinking like a coach.

There are numerous places in the book where they point out one of Bill’s super skills. At every point in his career, Bill had a knack for identifying tensions among teammates and figuring out how to resolve them.

Learn To Ring Out Politics & Provide Feedback The Right Way

You cannot accomplish much in business, or in any type of organization, without a team. And whether you call it tension, or politics, or differences – interpersonal barriers between teammates are all obstacles to trust, communication and performance. Bill was well known for identifying those types of issues, bringing them out and helping to move past them. He would fill in the gaps in communication between people. As he sat in a meeting, if he observed someone not seeming to get what was being communicated, or not seeing the “why”, he would follow-up and fill in the gaps. This helped keep everyone on the same page.

He was positive, level headed and constructive. He would identify problems, but he stayed positive and would praise people, he would hug people. But he was always striving to get to the heart of the problem in a positive way.  He taught others to be constructive in their feedback and to focus immediately on what you are going to do about it. Not what happened and whose to blame, but rather what are we going to do about it. He was relentlessly positive. If people started to complain / bitch, he would wouldn’t let it go on too long. He’d let them get it out, and then redirect to identifying the issue, working toward a next step or solution, and then moving on.

Build Trust & Put The Team First

Reading between the lines, you can see that Bill strived to build trust in the organization. He viewed the world as a network of people, with trust at the center of effective collaboration and execution. A team in particular is a network set upon producing some kind of results. Individuals on that team will have relative strengths and weaknesses, and they must learn to trust one another if they have any chance of fulfilling their potential execution capability together. Trust is a currency that must be fostered. You have to be discrete, loyal, and you must keep your word. If the manager / leader acts this way – the team will catch on. And if they don’t, they must be addressed.

As a leader or manager, you have to strive to build a team that allows you to work the team first, not the problem. If you find yourself having to continuously roll up your sleeves and dive in to solve problems – somethings broken. Start by looking yourself in the mirror. Challenge yourself to work the team first, not the problem. Helping to identify the problem is important, but ask questions as a way of challenging the team, or the individual, to solve the problem themselves.

In installment #3, I will attempt to provide some more concrete tools from the book to help you lead and coach in Bill Campbell fashion.

Trillion Dollar Coach – Install #1

I have been a student of management, strategy, organizational culture, leadership, personnel development, etc. for almost as long as I can remember. Questions like “What causes one team or one company to win when another in the same space fails or is average?” have been a curiosity mission of mine since I was a teenager. I have read many, many books and have been fortunate enough to have worked with / in many organizations and with many different types of managers and leaders. Sometimes I stumble onto something and it truly resonates with me. Trillion Dollar Coach, written by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle about Bill Campbell, was a book that hit that mark.

Over the next several posts, I will highlight a few of the things that really hit me that I feel are important for anyone who wants to be the best coach and leader they can be. This book would be at the top of my list for anyone who wants to lead and manage a team. To me, it has become like an organizational leadership bible. I took notes in the book, consolidated them in an Evernote note and share it often. And every time I pick it up, I see some nuance I hadn’t before. I wish I would’ve had an opportunity to meet Bill, but I have met some leaders who seem to be unknowing apostles, and man are they special people. Now onto to installment #1.

Teams Come Together To Produce Results

That header may seem obvious. But often I have found we in the business world, in the private equity world, seem to strive to overcomplicate things. Truly gifted coaches / leaders / managers know this tenet intrinsically. In any organization, a team comes together to produce results. Period. All too often, teams come together and they are smart, they are nice to one another, they do lots of “things” – but they are not focused on producing results. And they don’t. As Bill often noted to his teams – it’s easy to get off track – but a good leader keeps their team focused on results. Constantly.

Get Everyone On The Same Page

Getting your team focused on results is critical. Getting them on the same page is just as critical. Every meeting, every email, every interaction is an opportunity to reinforce where you are trying to go and what the most important things are. What will lead to results. As anyone who has ever managed knows, people often need help staying on focus with how and where they should spend their precious time. Relentlessly using your interactions to make sure everyone is on the same page about what you are doing as a team or organization and why is critical. As I often tell teams I work with – it’s really hard to over communicate important messages like what we stand for, where we are going, and why.

You Are There To Get More Out Of Them Then They Could Accomplish On Their Own

This may seem obvious as well, but if you haven’t ever thought about what a leader, or manager, or coach does – why they exist – this IS the answer. You are there for one thing – to facilitate the team to get more and better results than they would without you. Period. If you frame your interactions, meetings, etc. with that in mind, you can start to lead like Bill.

That’s it for installment #1. I would argue if you write those down somewhere and read them at the beginning of every day, or every meeting – you will start to understand what a real leader of organizations is supposed to do.

Staying Connected Is YOUR Responsibility

There has been plenty written during the pandemic about the physical and mental health benefits of staying connected to others. Much of it based on research, studies, etc. However, the connectedness I am writing of here is a one degree of separation curated network. You know who these people are. People who when you get together on the phone, Zoom, in person, etc. time passes differently. Your mind and ideas are stretched, you feel a “deep” connection. People who you think to yourself “In a different career or life path, I could’ve worked really well with that person…we seem to resonate.” They may indeed be people you work with, or they may be your friends. They are more likely “close colleagues” you don’t see very often. Maybe once or twice a year, or every 18 months. During the pandemic, I have had a few personal learnings about this group.

First, I realized it’s my responsibility to stay connected to them. People get busy. They have a family, a job, plenty of friends. And oftentimes, these tangential collegial relationships slip through the cracks. A strategy I have been using in 2021 is one I call “Occasionally Occurring Catch Up Meetings…” At the end of each call or meeting, I tell the other person “As long as you don’t mind, I’ll calendar our next call sometime in the next couple days for 5 – 7 weeks out … we can always move it, cancel, etc.” It has kept me connected in a much better rhythm. I’ve used it with small groups as well.

Second, I am amazed at the power and positive-mojo of these interactions. Invariably, when updates are swapped and the conversation heads down a path, some rich kernel of information or some way in which one of us can help one another percolates up. That may seem obvious, but I am continuously amazed at the reverberating waves of positive energy that emanate from these discussions.

Here are a few additional thoughts to the extent you may want to try this. You must be willing to be vulnerable. Surface level, positive ego enhancing only comments about yourself will not elicit deep conversation. Second – sit down with a clean sheet of paper and make the list of who, and then take control of a more consistent rhythm. Set up the next meeting right away, and check a couple days in advance if it still works hen you get there. Your life, and I would argue the lives of your friends, stand to be richer as a result.