The Four Agreements

The inspiration from this post comes from Super Bowl LV played on February 7, 2021. Or rather, from the background of the winning QB, Tom Brady who was completing his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday. I’ve always been fascinated by the arc of Brady’s career. While many argue he has to be in the conversation for the GOAT, and others that he has been blessed with great owners, coaches, and teammates, most don’t remember his entre into the NFL.

Brady was drafted in the 6th round of the 2000 draft and was the 7th QB taken and 199th pick overall. There have been 308 QBs that have run the 40 in an NFL combine since his draft – and only 3 have run it slower than he did. So whether you like him or not, think he is the GOAT or not, he clearly has worked hard at being a success in his chosen career. And early in his career, Brady read a book titled The Four Agreements written by Don Miguel Ruiz. The book is short, but Brady claims to read it every couple of years and has indicated it has been a mantra for his life, having helped him immensely both personally and professionally.

The agreements themselves are simple: (1) Be impeccable with your word (2) Don’t take anything personally (3) Don’t make assumptions and (4) Always do your best. The book encourages us to work on ourselves and our thinking in these areas as a way to improve how we feel about ourselves, how we interact with others, and how we tackle our tasks and our world on a daily basis. So how can these concepts be applied to business? To investing in or operating a company? I recently offered the following in an internal memo to a company I am involved with:

  1. Be Impeccable With Your Word  Our customers and teammates expect each of us to do our jobs. To keep our word. Our customers want to place an order and then forget about it. It’s a great way to build trust with ourself, and with one another. If we each strive to do so, we can continue to succeed.
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally  We all occasionally make mistakes. And sometimes those around us (either our teammates or our customers) are just having a bad day. Mistakes are to be learned from and hopefully not repeated, and if we can learn to not assume others questionable behaviors are directed at us, we can continue to succeed.
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions  None of us are mind readers. If you have a question, or if a customer or teammate has given you vague direction – or no direction – ask questions. By asking questions to clarify objectives and avoid mistakes, we can continue to succeed. Better to ask than to have to redo.
  4. Always Do Your Best  This one seems obvious. But the book reminds us this strongly intersects with the above agreements and can help quiet our internal judge. It also reminds us it is impossible to be “on” or perfect 100% of the time. We all occasionally stray, or are tired, or frustrated. But if we try to redirect and remind ourselves to do our best in the moment for ourselves, for our teammates and our customers, we can continue to succeed. Being accountable is the only way we can win as a team.

Each of you, and each of your roles, play an important part in our success as a team. And if we can keep these agreements in mind, we can continue to succeed.

Simply put, if it’s good enough for an athlete some consider the GOAT at one of the most challenging positions in football to succeed at over an extended period of time, maybe there’s something we can all take learn from those agreements.

The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, but it Bends Toward Justice

The quote used as the title of this post – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” – is such a great MLK quote. While it would be true to say it’s my favorite MLK quote, I’m not well read enough on his work to really have that opinion. That said, you may recognize it as President Obama re-popularized this phrase during both his campaign and presidency. It supposedly meant so much to him, he had the quote inscribed into a rug in the Oval Office. So what, you may be asking, does this quote have to do with a blog post from an investor? Well if you’ll allow me some latitude, I’ll weave my own arc of how I got there.

I was fortunate on a recent vacation to actually be able to take some time and unplug. To read. To think. And to think about what I / we do, and what we want to do. Looking back at what we have done, and what I have done now for 20+ years of my career, those activities has been heavily focused on working with people and teams in an effort to help organizations grow and to (hopefully) create increasing enterprise values over time. It hasn’t always gone perfectly, in fact in some cases it hasn’t even gone well (well that’s not entirely true, it almost always goes well for some of the time, but over the duration there have been a few stinkers in the end…). And a big part of our fundamental first principal beliefs is that in order for a company or organization to grow – it has to be focused on growth oriented activities (e.g. strategic planning, hiring and retaining top talent, developing that talent, developing a strong culture, investing in change, innovation and growth, etc.). Most organizations are not focused on these activities.

So when I intersected this quote again recently, as excellent as it is, I noticed that people are quick to point out that on it’s own, it can be misleading. And I would agree with that. On it’s own, it seems to imply that the arc is bending whether people are leaning into making change or not. And to me it’s obvious, the arc is indeed always bending, but it doesn’t always bend towards justice, and it damn sure doesn’t bend towards justice all on its own over the long-term. In this way, a company’s growth is similar.

A company’s growth is not pre-determined just because it always used to grow, or because leadership thinks it should or will continue to grow. Growth requires work. Bending in the right direction requires work. In fact, in later speeches, Obama actually said: “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.” Amen – and it’s the same for the arc of a company or any other organization. If you aren’t focusing on growth and improvement, you’re likely evolving and bending in the wrong direction: toward decay, toward atrophy. You are not sitting still. Ever.

For some additional interesting (to me anyway) historical perspective, it turns out MLK cribbed the whole concept from a gent named Theodore Parker. Parker was around in the first half of the 19th century and was a Transcendentalist and Unitarian church minister. There’s another entire rat hole of Internet pages to click through to explore those concepts. Interesting stuff. Anyway, Parker, in speaking of his belief for the long-term success of the abolitionist movement, said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” So it turns out that he, Obama, and MLK all indeed understood that you have to lean in to try and bend it the right way. What are you leaning into it with your company or organization and which direction is it bending?

Effectiveness is Doing the Right Things Well

The title quote – Effectiveness is Doing the Right Things Well – is a Peter Drucker statement taken from The Essential Drucker, a compilation of a series of his works. If you don’t know who Peter Drucker is and you’ve stumbled onto this blog, I hope you will go do some research. Here’s an article to start if you’re interested. He was a highly regarded and inquisitive business researcher and a prolific writer. In The Essential Drucker, he is asked what the most important concepts are from his 39 books spanning decades studying managers, strategy and business. And this is the quote he comes up with: “Effectiveness is Doing the Right Things Well.”

It sounds very Yoda like and over simplified. But in my own experience, those seven words encapsulate the nature and focus of the very best executives I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. It is incredibly simple in concept, but the real challenge is deciding what the right things are – and sticking with them – every day. That, in my opinion, is what separates the average from the good, and the good from the great. Being able to distill the right things – and there cannot be too many – and then drilling them, over and over, that is the secret of being effective. Being an effective manager of course requires making sure everyone knows what the right things are for their role or function. Making an organization succeed and produce more than the sum of its parts can happen no other way. Though I suppose you can indeed be efficient in many things and still not succeed – efficiency and effectiveness are very different. To succeed, you must be effective – and to do that, you MUST do those right things well. Therein is the art.

With the company’s of the size we typically get involved with, we often find the founder / owner often naturally seems to push certain of the right buttons, focuses on many of the right things – up to a point. And then the company in many cases stalls, or reaches a stasis. It’s a fine business, but it isn’t undergoing rapid growth or evolution any longer. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But without evolution, things often start the slow drift downward. And new set of things needs to become the right things to do well.

It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.

The title above is a quote from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values. A book I read for the first time two summers ago, and to which I return from time-to-time to see what I missed. Each time I learn something new.

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On a snowy Sunday in a coffee shop, I went out to see the last time I blogged, and I noticed it had been over a year. I contemplated chipping away at 4 or 5 posts and back dating them (a strategy I’ve used before : o ) but instead I decided to post anew, face the gap, and recognize sometimes you just need to keep pushing forward for Quality – a major topic in the modern philosophical novel by Pirsig.

During the year gap, there have been a number of personal and professional ups and downs, and a myriad of change – some initiated and some thrust upon us. At our firm, we sold a position in on of our companies, increased our position in another, and purchased the assets of a business out of a chapter 7 bankruptcy process.

The pursuit of investing as an independent sponsor is a flexible and unique existence – and it is also much more entrepreneurial than most styles of private equity. Particularly in our end of the economy where we tend to focus on businesses with $1 – $3 million of EBITDA. They are a unique project, and tend to require deeper involvement from investors if one is inclined to be active. We have been forced to be active sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes I’m sure when we didn’t need to be quite as active.

So this year, I will intend to choose topics to write about that focus here – on some of the unique aspects of investing in true “lower-middle market” – or small businesses – particularly when one is not using mostly their own capital. A component of our model we have for the foreseeable future. I will also write a bit about Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition – or “ETA” – a way operators can choose to pursue buying a business to run and grow. This is an emerging segment of small company PE that I am particularly interested we need more operations minded people trying to buy and grow companies in my opinion.

Check back through 2019 if you want, and feel free to reach out if you have anything you’d like to discuss in these areas. We enjoy connecting with like minded investors and operators – we always seem to learn from one another.

The Renaissance of HR

Most of the companies we meet and interact with are small businesses.  Most do not have HR execs, and many do not employ basic HR tools such as training, reviews, vacation policies, conduct policies, etc.  And among the Fortune 500, HR has often gotten short shrift and is sometimes viewed with disdain as a “compliance” function.  Case in point, a friend of mine who was a senior exec involved in a recent high profile public company corporate break-up told me the executives in charge of the transaction were negotiating over who would get “stuck” with the HR group.  However, from what I can tell, some organizations, the smarter ones in my opinion, are beginning to rethink the role of what has traditionally been called “human resources” within their organizations.

Progressive companies who value culture, who understand turnover of high performance people is expensive, and those who want to attract and retain the best and brightest are leading the charge.  “HR” can, and should be, much more than a compliance function.  Perhaps its the rise of the millennials, or just common sense in an ever changing global landscape where a great team can mean the difference between success and mediocrity (or failure…).  And like it or not, you cannot build a great team without building a culture that attracts and keeps great teammates.

As an example, I attended a conference at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business last month where the SVP of People at Chobani, Grace Zuncic, participated on a panel.  She discussed their use of modern digital-based tools such as Everwise (mentors outside the company) and Bonusly (peer-to-peer recognition app) in their business.  Grace reports directly to the CEO, and is involved in strategic decisions well outside the realm of traditional “HR” – my point being it would be difficult to assess this role as one of a stuffy compliance only functional head.  Similarly, McDonald’s has both a Chief People Officer and a Chief Talent Officer – neither of whom could be confused with with compliance police, non-strategic folks.

I’m personally excited about this change.  Tools that help asses, attract, train, engage, excite and retain talented people, properly deployed, should help progressive organizations continue to grow and evolve.


Tech Execs Should Be Leading Teen Technology Related Issues Discussion

This post is a bit of a departure from prior posts, but hopefully it fits together with the start of another school year and the responsibility of corporations, executives and investors to our communities.  Fair warning, it’s quite honestly a bit of a PSA that no one asked for, but I felt compelled to write.

A little background.  I have been investing in growing businesses for almost 20 years, am a recovering VC who still dabbles sporadically in tech angel investing, and I am a technofile.  I love progress, technology, software, content distribution platforms, etc. but as we all know advances like these can have unintended consequences.  At home, our family has had a front row seat to some of the challenges of modern teen anxiety and depression, devolving into sub-optimal coping behaviors, and leading to more personal things not appropriate to wade into in a (primarily) business blog.

The issue at hand for me is the clear evidence that something is happening to our teen and young adult populations shoving an increasing number of them down a thorny and spiraling off-ramp whose destinations can be anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.  Let’s face it, junior high and high school can be difficult times for some, and in today’s world, pressures are often higher, and kids cannot escape.  Snapchat, Instagram, texting, etc. can be 24/7.  There is no evening, or weekend or summer distance / boundaries any longer – and kids often do not have the maturity or coping skills to create those boundaries.  There’s a myriad of issues from my perspective with these platforms, but at a high level, kids can easily and often find themselves in social situations that they do not have the coping skills to handle or ignore.  And from there they can find content to explore unhealthy coping choices and continue the downward spiral.  Developmentally, their young brains are just not equipped to deal with these things the way one hopes a mature adult might (and many adults don’t do such a great job either…).

The statistics, most of which are dated lagging indicators, show anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide among teens and young adults spiking.  I believe this is one key area in which the technology community should be engaging and leading with a loud voice, and I don’t see it.  At all.  It seems impossible to believe that mobile devices, content distribution platforms and social media aren’t somehow impacting the rates of anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide among teens and young adults.  This is of course a complex issue, and there are many contributing factors.  Factors many “experts” do not agree on.  I’ve read and learned first hand a lot on these subjects since my own deep dive, and while I will not link to the statistics here, you can find them easily.  If you’re looking for an good primer on the subject, this Atlantic article is a good start  Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

This is an issue for teens of both genders (suicide statistics worse for boys, self-harm worse for girls) and for young adults who are struggling with stress and destructive coping choices in college in increasing numbers.  Mobile devices, content and social media platforms are not the only factors – believe me I understand that.  Other’s likely include real and perceived pressure to succeed, helicopter parents who do not allow their children to self-advocate and fail often enough (according to an expert on that topic – me), general teen insecurity, anxiety, developmental challenges, learning disabilities, and much more.  However, the pressures of modern society are seemingly exacerbated by mobile technologies and services.  And specifically for teens, social media platforms and the proliferation of whatever kind of content you would like to find are proving addictive and likely problematic contributors.

I’m sure there is a role for parents, and I’m also sure I’ve made my share of mistakes.  But in this post I want to challenge the leaders of the technology industry to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves if they are doing enough.  What specifically am I suggesting?  My belief is that the CEOs of companies like Snapchat and Facebook (which owns Instagram) should be publicly beating the drum and advocating for the healthy and safe use of technology among children, teens and young adults.  More importantly, they should specifically acknowledge that the unhealthy or excessive use of social media may impact anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide in these populations.  Explain how it could happen so parents, legislators, their employees can begin talk about it more openly and to understand.  They should cite the frightening increases in these behaviors, and make sure the fabric of their company’s cultures understands they should care and worry about this.  There’s a lot more they could do, but they could start there.  Get the conversation moving with some momentum.  Hire an EVP of Healthy Use – a C level exec in charge of exploring and understanding how kids use and abuse these technologies, and how its impacting their mental health and stability.

As of the writing of this post, Snapchat’s market cap exceeded $17 billion and it’s cash position exceeded $2.8 billion.  Facebook ‘s market cap is $490+ billion, cash position $35+ billion.  Kids aren’t even good business for these platforms – advertisers don’t spend millions to target 13 and 14 year olds, and quite honestly at some point something new will come along and likely replace both these platforms with teens.  But for now, in  my opinion, the leaders of these companies and leaders in the tech industry in general are blissfully ignoring the collateral damage facilitated by their products and services.  I wonder quite honestly if they even see it or get it.

If not because it’s the right thing to do, then come out and lead before others come after you.  One need look no further backward than to cigarettes and the ad industry to see that ultimately, the government and interest groups will step in if there’s enough noise about children’s health.  But by then, likely millions of additional young people across the world will turn to dangerous and destructive coping mechanisms while the adults and leaders in their world ignore the issue.  As someone who has seen it firsthand, we’re screwing up kids lives and could be doing a much better job.  At the very least we should be talking about it.  I hope people in the tech industry step up and lead.  This post is one small step I’m taking, I plan to take others as well.

Iacocca & Epstein on Character

In my last post, I discussed the importance of having a nucleus of high performance players reporting to a high performance leader.  But are there other attributes outside of functional skills and intellect that matter when constructing the core of a high performance group?  I would argue emphatically yes!  You need people of good character if you want a long-term successful team and culture.  During a recent conversation with a serial entrepreneur friend of mine who is building an early stage business backed by blue chip VCs, I asked him what he’s doing differently this time.  He said he’s getting rid of people faster.   If they don’t fit the culture, regardless of their talent, they are moving on.  This may sound easy, but it’s difficult to do in practice.  Or, it may sound cruel to you, but its critical unless you want to take longer than necessary and take on more risk.

Hearkening back to the Iacocca autobiography I mentioned in my last post, he speaks pretty frankly about what he thinks it takes to succeed as a high performance team member and manager:

“There’s one phrase that I hate to see on any executive’s evaluation, no matter how talented he may be, and that’s the line: ‘He has trouble getting along with other people.’  To me, that’s the kiss of death.  ‘You’ve just destroyed the guy’ I always think…if he can’t get along with his peers, what good is he to the company?  As an executive, his whole function is to motivate other people.  If he can’t do that, he’s in the wrong place.”

As for Theo Epstein and the Cubs?  As mentioned in this Fortune article, and in even more detail in The Cubs Way:  The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse, at the core of the Cubs rebuilding process was the desire to find four everyday field players as the pillars to build around.  Yet at this point in his career versus his time in Boston, the strategy of simply leveraging the Moneyball statistical tools  was no longer enough.  Everyone else was doing the same thing, and Theo had learned a thing or two.  So he turned to the locker room.  He turned to character.  To players that would exhibit the traits that made the difference outside of numbers – leadership, hard work, sportsmanship, teamwork, etc.  I’ll end this post with another (long, sorry) quote from the Iacocca book.  This excerpt is from a conversation Lee had with Vince Lombardi.  Iacocca asked him, based on his years of experience, what was his formula for success?

“You have to start by teaching the fundamentals.  A player’s got to know the basics of the game and how to play his position.  Next, you’ve got to keep him in line.  That’s discipline.  The men have to play as a team, not a bunch of individuals.

But there have been a lot of coaches with good ball clubs who know the fundamentals and have plenty of discipline but still don’t win the game.  Then you come to the third ingredient: if you’re going to play together as a team, you’ve got to care for one another.  You’ve got to love each other.

Each player has to be thinking about the next guy and saying to himself: ‘If I don’t block that man, Paul is going to get his legs broken.  I have to do my job well in order that he can do his.’  The difference between mediocrity and greatness is the feeling these guys have for each other.  Most people call it team spirit.  When the players are imbued with that special feeling, you know you’ve got yourself a winning team.”

Importance of a Core High Performance Team

Recently, I read Lee Iacocca’s autobiography at the same time I was in the midst of focusing on how important a core of high performance team members is to the success of an organization.

Looking back over my own results, I can assure you that a high performance team will outperform an average team.  But how many high performance players do you need to form a nucleus?  My belief is you must have a high performance leader, and that person must have at least 3, hopefully more, high performance direct reports.  Of course it depends on the size of the organization, but if you look at a team, and don’t see at least 3 – 5 extraordinary people reporting to an extraordinary leader, your results will suffer, and you’ve got work to do.  A strong leader simply cannot do it alone – no matter how good.  In Iacocca’s book, he says:

“The key to success is not information, it’s people.  And the kinds of people I look for to fill top management spots are the eager beavers.  These are the guys who try to do more than they’re expected to.  They’re always reaching.  And reaching out to the people they work with, trying to help them do their jobs better.  That’s the way they’re built…So I try to look for people with that drive.  You don’t need many.  With twenty five of these guys, I could run the government of the United States.  At Chrysler I had about a dozen.”

You may be thinking that the management principles of a guy who helped bring out the Ford Mustang in 1962 might not be all the applicable today.  You would be wrong. Fast forward to the fall of 2016 when the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in nearly 100 years.  Theo Epstein, the GM who also helped elevate the long-time losing Boston Red Sox to baseball’s summit, has said that a core part of his Cubs rebuild plan from inception was to build the team around four core everyday position players.  They didn’t know who those players would be when they started – but they knew they needed a nucleus of more than two or three to be successful.  This core they believed would carry the torch and lead the rest.  Today, in Chicago these pillars are well known (Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber, and Russell) and the plan seems to have worked out ok.

So this may seem like a trite insight.  Isn’t it obvious?  Well, perhaps that’s true.  But the challenge is to force yourself to ensure they are there and that you aren’t just “settling” or “hoping.”  It’s so easy to get lulled into a false sense of security that a certain team member or two are “good enough” or “have the potential to be high performers.”  If you allow yourself to get lulled into this false belief, the team will be average at best, and if you expect exceptional results, they simply won’t come.

My next post will focus on another important aspect of that team as viewed through the eyes of Iacocca and Epstein – character.

United’s Brand Bruise – What to Learn?

I’ll admit it.  I’m a huge brand fan.  Maybe I’ve picked it up from reading too much from and about Warren Buffett, or maybe I’m weak and have succumb to the manipulation of our commercial culture following decades of being a U.S. consumer.  Regardless, I believe a brand is among the hardest things to create in business.  It can also be among the most valuable assets an organization has.  It would seem then, that a consumer brand is something organizations should protect and cherish with a lot of really high quality resources.  And while many organizations do, it’s still shocking how often it gets screwed up.  I suppose if it didn’t, many PR firms wouldn’t exist.

My first real comprehension of brand came during the Tylenol scare in 1982.  Yes, I was not only alive in 1982, I was in fact an impressionable teenager.  Very briefly, someone tampered with Tylenol bottles putting potassium cyanide capsules inside killing 7 people.  You can explore more here, there’s plenty to research if you’re interested.  Our family lived outside Chicago at the time, and these incidences all occurred in the Chicago area.  Johnson & Johnson ended up undertaking a nationwide recall.  At the time, this seemed to make sense to me.  People were dying, a company can’t take any chances.  But it also dawned on me that Tylenol had many products, and a strong reputation and that of course one should do everything they can to protect their reputation – or in this case – their brand.

Fast forward 35 years and recently a certain airline had an incident where a passenger was dragged off a flight.  I’m going to leave my own opinion aside of the incident and just focus on the brand handling.  United’s CEO has been soundly drubbed for his initial response.  And to me, it’s well deserved.  Their reputation was at stake.  While obviously so very different from the Tylenol incident, the core issue of a brand’s trusted relationship to it’s customers is still the same.  Trust was broken.  How you move to repair that trust matters – it impacts your brand – one of your most valuable assets.

I am positive many disagree with the above statement, but to me it’s glaringly obvious.  Let me illustrate with another example from the early 1990s.  Andy Grove, one of my all-time favorite strategic leaders, and arguably one of the greatest executives in modern U.S. business history, was dealing with an incredibly minor, nearly undetectable, glitch in the Intel 386 Pentium consumer PC chip.  You can read more detail in this excellent article about Grove, but suffice it to say, the uproar was much to do about nothing really.  But it was an uproar.  And it was gaining steam – fast.  At around the same time Intel had moved to its now famous “Intel Inside” marketing campaign.  A shift that put them squarely in the realm of a consumer brand.  So how did the business leader legend handle the situation?  He said:

“What we view as a minor technical problem has taken on a life of its own.  We apologize.  We were motivated by a belief that replacement is simply unnecessary for most people. We still feel that way.”

The classic non-apology apology.  Any of you who are married may be familiar with this.  “I’m sorry if me telling you that you’re brother is an idiot upset you…”  Grove basically told the public “we’re smarter than you, you don’t need this fixed, but since you won’t stop complaining, we’ll replace you’re damn chip if you want us to…”  Richard Tedlow, the author of the article referenced above, perfectly encapsulates my view of this oft misunderstood issue by tone deaf executives in these situations:  “In branding, a customer’s subjective reality, even if confused, becomes your objective reality.”  That’s about perfect.

So what can we learn from United Airline’s issue?  It doesn’t matter whose pilots were on the plane, whose crew was on the plane, whether procedures were or were not followed correctly – the passengers put their trust in UAL’s reputation and brand when they booked the flight through UAL, waited at a UAL gate, then boarded a plane with a UAL logo.  And whether the passenger was complicit, or obstinate, or proper procedure was followed, it was glaringly obvious what the average customers subjective reality was likely to be.  It was easily predictable.  So maybe what we’ve learned then is some people just don’t understand the relationship their brand has to the public.  And I get that.  But the CEO must understand their brand relationship – period.  If they don’t, that can be an expensive problem.  The damage control for UAL is ongoing.  It didn’t have to be that way.

Leaders Must Mentor & Lead

Being a leader of any business, particularly one with institutional investors (VCs, PE folks, family offices, etc), can be a lonely job.  It’s also a job you won’t know if you can handle until you find yourself in the role.  I have been fortunate, having gotten to work to with leaders across all stages of a company’s life-cycle.  From start-ups, to growth stage businesses, to a nearly 100 year old “old economy” enterprise.  And I’ve noticed there is one component of leadership that crosses that entire spectrum that sometimes less experienced CEOs lose sight of.  You have to lead – you have to mentor – and in some sense you have to separate yourself from the team.

That may seem like a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but in today’s business and entrepreneurial culture, the idea of being a collaborative leader, of being a good listener, of empowering your teammates is sometimes translated into treating your subordinates like peers in all aspects of your relationship.  While this may not seem like a big deal, the reality is someone needs to be in charge.  Your direct reports (and their direct reports) are indeed looking for autonomy, support, pick-me-ups, but they are also looking for direction, mentorship and a vision to follow.  They want to know that someone has a firm hand on the rudder and is going to help them grow and evolve.  But they also want to know that someone is going to hold them and others accountable, and will be willing to make tough decisions when tough decisions are called for.  Having your teammate’s back is important, but you still need to lead.

It’s a fine line.  And in my experience, much of this skill seems to be innate.  Unfortunately, one can be very effective role player, reaching very senior positions professionally, without having this weakness exposed since it’s never tested until you stand at the conn.  But as investors and board members, once it is exposed, it cannot be allowed to persist.  An organization without a capable leader is like a sailboat without its captain having a firm hand on the rudder.  You will drift listlessly.  And while that in and of itself is dangerous, culturally there are things happening below deck no one is seeing that are creating even worse potential problems for the future.

So treat your team with respect.  Lead by example.  Delegate and promote open communication and empowerment of subordinates.  But don’t forget to lead.

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