The Thinking CEO's Survival Kit
What you need now -- personally -- to build a business and find peace of mind at the same time
I may not run a company, but I am like you in more ways than I'd care to admit.
We won't go into detail about the kids' soccer games I've missed or the friends' calls that went unreturned; I'm not ready for that kind of public confession. But let's just say I let work loom larger in my life than is good for me or my family. I have the uneasy feeling that they didn't have people like me in mind when they coined the term Renaissance man.
Peace of mind? Sense of being in control? In this, the last decade of the most frenzied century mankind has ever known? Right. As soon as this cover story is finished. As soon as you've restructured the business or set up a rep network or hired a chief financial officer. Isn't peace of mind for wimps?
Not if you're smart, it isn't. No matter how chimerical it may seem, peace of mind is not a luxury anymore, especially for company builders, who are the makers, not the instruments, of company policy -- who are the role models, the culture creators, the surrogate parents to that little community of workers each business brings together. And who face those challenges in an age of unprecedented flux (global competition, ever-changing technology, ever-growing regulation, and employees in the new participatory economy who ask of their leaders skills not yet learned).
And as a company builder you face all that largely alone, without the help of peers and supervisors that the rest of us routinely lean on for encouragement, instruction, perspective, and relief.
A few chief executives know all that -- and dream of having kaleidoscopic lives, anyway: of retaining or renegotiating an identity, personal and financial, that's separate from their companies. They make the time to turn acquaintances into friends. They seek new ways to stretch their intellect, aerate their spirits, and find an enduring sense of fulfillment.
What's more, they know that along with all its personal benefits, peace of mind is good business, too. They recognize what too many CEOs don't: that in all probability they're their company's single biggest asset. They know that running a company is too hard nowadays if you're not finding ways to become wiser than you were last year and more knowledgeable than you were last month. It's too hard if you can't keep your perspective or sustain the emotional and intellectual energy that good leadership requires. It's too hard if you're not taking care of yourself.
And anyway, if you're not taking care of yourself, then building a business isn't worth the trouble in the first place.
Consider this article a well-meaning intervention, a catalog of tips that reflect Inc.'s collective sense of how entrepreneurial leaders might achieve and sustain peace of mind. Consider it an admonition, too -- even a plea. Be good to yourself. Have faith that cultivating your own peace of mind is the wisest thing you can do for your company.
Oh, and it will feel great, too.
* * *
1. Your obituary (in a survival kit?)
2. A board of advisers that meets once a month (your customers will gladly serve)
3. A confessor who's available for regular dates and more concerned about you than about your business
4. One night a week to learn a foreign language (naval history? the principles of architecture?) with no homework required
5. A two-week family hike (annually, to where there are bears)
6. A plan to manage your money as carefully as you manage your company's
7. Your latest LDL cholesterol number (checked twice a year)
8. The name of your successor (and the date he or she takes over)
9. A weekly lunch date with your switchboard operator
1 0. An eight-point guide to a harmonious workplace
11. Twenty minutes a day to meditate (to let great ideas in)
1. Your obituary
Here Lies the CEO
We agree: seeking perspective by writing your own obituary today is the biggest cliché in the book. Gravestone as touchstone? Inscription as prescription? Puh-leeze. Nevertheless: what do you really want to be remembered for?
If marble citations are too much of a downer, here's a more, uh, lively way to handle it. You could scribble down a "purpose statement," as Sheila West, CEO of ACI Consolidated, in Monroe, Mich., has done. West has, over several months, outlined her many roles in life: mother, wife, community leader, company CEO, and more. For each role, she has decided what she wants to become, and she gauges herself periodically against those goals.
Monuments or memos -- the format doesn't matter. The point is to find a simple but enduring way to acknowledge that there's more to you than being skipper of your sleek little corporate vessel. (There isn't? See "Getting a Life," page 3.) It is to provide a tangible mechanism for measuring your growth as a multidimensional creature, as distinct from your company as a mother is from her child.
Your employees want you to be three parts Churchill and one part Gandhi, spiced with a dash of Letterman. But there's a broader way to define yourself, using questions like these: Without the company you gave birth to, is there any you there? Who do you want that person to be?
2. A board of advisers
Shoulders to Lean On, Part I
When they said it was lonely at the top, they didn't mean Jack Welch at GE or John Smith at GM -- they meant you.
Down there at the apex of your growing company, there's no policy manual on how to fire your banker and no MIS director whose neck you can breathe down when the system crashes. You have no boardroom buddies you can kvetch with. Not until you create them, O Zeus among company builders.
But there are ways to combat the sense of isolation, to get the inside scoop from industry veterans, or simply to get some distance from the week's crises. You might divide the support needed into two kinds: the succor that helps patch up your psychic and emotional self (see "Shoulders to Lean On, Part II," below) and the more formal, project-specific assistance that addresses the tactical and strategic wants of the company.
Susan Peterson had the latter in mind when she recently set up a formal board of advisers comprising 12 of her clients. "I was scared to death that they wouldn't accept my invitation," she recalls. As it turned out, everyone invited agreed, even before she described the free training session she was prepared to offer as a come-on. (Susan Peterson Productions Inc., based in Washington, D.C., offers training in presentation skills.) The group meets regularly to critique aspects of her operations, such as her marketing package. "One of the best things I did is not chair the group," says Peterson.
In many cases, finding shoulders to cry on is as easy as making a phone call to a local chapter of an entrepreneurs' group like the Executive Committee (TEC) or Young Presidents' Organization and blocking out the time to attend. Oh, and actually attending.
Steve Ashton, CEO of Ashton Photo Co., a Salem, Oreg., photo-image printer, has been a TEC chapter member for years. "More than anything else, the meetings are a reality check. Other members give you a variety of perspectives. It's brutally candid," he says. The sessions have helped members resolve prickly problems, such as how to dismiss a reliable employee whom the company has outgrown.
One-on-one mentoring partnerships take the networking concept one layer deeper. Some entrepreneurs' organizations can help set up such partnerings: the Women's Business Development Center in Chicago, for example, recently launched a program to pair 15 neophyte woman company builders with owners of businesses that were at least five years old. In one case, the protégé -- a retailer -- has learned how to implement product markdowns.
3. A confessor
Shoulders to Lean On, Part II
Confession time. It's all very well to seek out networks that can help ease some of the company's woes, but what about you? Don't expect your board to start dissecting your sense of self.
For most, personal feedback arrives through a one-on-one relationship. Perhaps it's with a caring spouse or a religious leader or a counselor or an old college professor. It could be between the CEO and a trusted business associate or close friend. It could be as informal and cathartic as an unloading of all your woes in one fiery monologue. No matter: everybody's better off for having someone else's ear to bend.
4. One night a week to learn
Living and Learning
There's an engaging scene in the 1991 movie Frankie and Johnny in which ex-con-turned-short-order-cook Johnny, played by Al Pacino, is sweet-talking doleful waitress Frankie -- Michelle Pfeiffer. Kidding her about the value of self-improvement, he describes how he uses a dictionary every day to learn the meaning of a new word.
Unerringly, the movie ends with Johnny's toothbrush stacked next to Frankie's. Self-Improvement Guy makes good, Hollywood-style.
The silver screen -- indeed, much of our popular culture -- pulsates with messages celebrating self-renewal. Susan Powter promises a new body. Stephen Covey promises a new mind, without the mind-set. But there's really not a lot of learning going on. Lots of repair, lots of psychic and physical overhaul, all right. But not a lot of deliberate, targeted intellectual growth of the kind that keeps company builders out in front.
Think you'll do better selling your product into post-NAFTA Mexico if your Spanish is beyond the grade-school level? Figure you'll have a better handle on cash flow if you take that night course in accounting? We're not talking here about a multiyear enslavement to a night-school M.B.A. program.
Proud company owners, of course, don't have time for the kind of learning that's on tap (and often all but mandated) for Fortune 500 executives. But by spending so much time personally fighting daily fires, entrepreneurs miss out on the restorative calm of a classroom and the sense of regeneration that make the act of learning so pleasurable. And they aren't about to dent an image of control by risking anything so human as a mistake. More ominously, they risk blunting the company's edge at the very time when new technologies and new global trading patterns cry out for mastery of new skills.
John O'Neil, president of the California School of Professional Psychology, in San Francisco, and author of The Paradox of Success: When Winning at Work Means Losing at Life (Tarcher/Putnam, 1993), asks business leaders, "What are you going to learn for yourself?" For too many entrepreneurial CEOs, the answer, at least to date, is "nothing much."
5. A two-week hike
Getting a Life
There's nothing like an encounter with a bear to put things in perspective. Watching the black bear -- smelling the bear -- nuzzling the camping pack a short stone's throw away, Michael Marvin found it especially easy to forget the worries of his working week.
Marvin doesn't seem to mind those reality jolts. Actually, you could say he invites them. Last year the chairman of MapInfo Corp., a maker of mapping software in Troy, N.Y., took two weeks to go backpacking across the Alaskan tundra. Not much to see up there; not many trees. But lots of grizzly droppings.
Now, not every founder of a small company takes vacations with bear bells. Not every founder takes vacations, period. For many founders (if not most), the tug of the business is overpowering; these people know for a fact that the company will crumble three days -- make that two days -- after they leave for Fiji. Their compromise? They go to Hawaii instead, because more hotels there have modem jacks.
Taking two weeks out to do something as becalming as backpacking in Alaska seems unutterably insane in an era when fortunes can be won or lost in the twinkling of an electronic network.
But that's not the way Marvin sees it. For him, the physical and mental time-out isn't simply a necessary recharging of the psychic batteries. It's an opportunity to do something he finds deeply satisfying in itself, and to restore those parts of himself that are good husband, trusted companion, and avid outdoorsman.
Marvin books those exploits well in advance, deliberately sectioning off the time for them. He's deriving self-esteem from multiple sources, facing challenges of his own making that heighten his own sense of being alive. And he's unconsciously modeling himself as a balanced leader for his employees, who now see that working hours and waking hours need not be the same thing.
6. A plan to manage your money
Money Magazine's Next Cover Boy
Gregg Foster was absolutely typical of the small-company CEO; the bulk of his and his family's wealth was locked into the corporate entity that consumed so much of his life, in servitude to the bankers for all time.
Never mind that Foster, CEO of Elyria Foundry Co., in Elyria, Ohio, had made it by every measure: revenue and profit growth rates that many in his industry would have committed crimes for; kudos from peers, colleagues, and employees; Inc.'s Turnaround Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1992.
Foster's wake-up call came as he finally sat down to do a little estate planning. It began to sink in that if anything happened to him, his family could end up paying off company debts by selling the house. "I forced the issue to unscramble my personal and business finances. I started to respect my own balance sheet," he says.
His solution? Acknowledging that continued growth (Elyria's sales were expanding at a 30% annual clip) cried out for continued borrowing, Foster deliberately set down a plan to rein in expansion and pay down debt -- all debt.
Foster's solution flies in the face of untrammeled company building, so it's not for everyone. Others dispute the ability of any owner of a growing company to stake out personal assets that the bank won't corner as collateral. But Foster's realization can be taken as a mandate for all company builders: it's crucial to take charge of your personal finances, and to do so now, because there's no plump corporate pension plan with your name on it waiting for the day you turn 65.
Where to start? Make regular appointments with yourself in ink, with your personal financial strategy the only item on the agenda.
To begin with, nobody ever said it was a sin to take a salary. Then there's that little issue of retirement planning. Financial-planning pros will quickly tell you that company builders are more neglectful than most at taking care of their financial future. The standard assumption of most owners of closely held companies is that all they've got to do is keep growing the company's net worth until they turn 61 and then find a buyer to provide the cash sum that will set them up in style on their own private island.
Sometimes it even works like that. But it's hardly the kind of strategy that will guarantee Sominex-free nights for you and your family.
Retirement planning hasn't found widespread favor with small-company CEOs, because it's viewed as a costly and complex process to launch. Banish those images of labyrinthine pension plans, says Daniel Maul, president of Retirement Planning Associates, in Kirkland, Wash.; a 401(k) plan can be set up in an afternoon, he says, and administered for only about $40 per person a year. The savings ceiling means that you, as CEO, can't stash away the kind of money that will pay for your acreage on Captiva Island. But it's a start.
We could talk for hours about split-dollar plans, tax-deferred annuities, and more, but we'll wrap it up with this last point: make your money work as hard for you as you've had to work for it. That means managing a portfolio with a strategy that suits your circumstances -- the bulk of it in aggressive equity growth vehicles if you're under 40.
After all, isn't that how you'd manage your company's cash reserves?
7. Your latest cholesterol count
It's true: many growing-company CEOs take better care of their cars than they do of their bodies. Forgive us if this sounds like something out of Parade magazine, but here are Inc.'s tips for living longer (as if we all applied these guidelines conscientiously ourselves):
Decide that you need to make your health a priority.
Choose a doctor with at least as much care as you'd go about selecting a professional accountant. (Look for someone who's more interested in prevention than in Band-aid cures.)
Get references from local health boards; interview candidates.
Go to your local Y and get a baseline strength test and cardiovascular measurement.
Know your cholesterol levels -- both "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and "good" high-density (HDL) numbers -- and keep score on both.
Know your resting heart rate.
Don't just pencil in your dates for exercise -- ink them in. If you think you'll somehow squeeze workouts in, they'll inevitably get squeezed out. Don't cancel on yourself!
Do exercise that you actually enjoy.
Listen to your consistent aches and pains.
Don't skip meals, and do eat lots of fruit and fiber, just as your mother always told you.
8. Your successor
Not to lay a heavy guilt trip on you or anything, but let us suggest that you take a simple but vital first step: write down (right now) the names of the three people most suited to occupy your office if you were downed by the proverbial truck tomorrow. Only then can you give serious consideration to sifting through internal and external contenders before you set up a timetable for formal evaluations, training, and transition planning.
9. Lunch with your switchboard operator
So taking your switchboard operator to lunch is only a suggestion. (Sure, people may talk, but who better to give you a reading on how those new customers view you?) So buy lunch for your customer-service manager once a month, as Doug Huber, chief operating officer of Allied Communications, in St. Louis, does. Or check the mail to see how many love letters you're getting from customers these days.
Alternatively, you can go listen in real time to your customer's customer, which is how Linda Lichtman, president of Columbus Window Co., in Columbus, Ohio, rests easy knowing that she's got the best feedback going. Lichtman travels with one of her customer's salespeople once a week and sits in a real estate development's model home for an afternoon to hear the sales staffer's clients' comments.
It doesn't have to be weekly, and it doesn't have to take long, but touching base with customers regularly is all but mandatory if you're serious about this peace-of-mind thing.
IS YOUR BALANCING ACT JUST THAT: AN ACT?
Think you're a well-rounded CEO? Take our quiz and find out.
1. Have you had dinner with your family more than once in the past working week? (If yes, 5 points) Yes No
2. Have you read more than five nonbusiness books in the last year? (If yes, 5 points) Yes No
3. Do you have more than two friends who aren't family members or business associates? (If yes, 5 points) Yes No
4. How many of the following public figures can you identify? (1 point for each) David Lynch John Major Kenneth Branagh Robert James WallerMaya Angelou Ruth Bader Ginsberg
5. In the last calendar year did you take more than one week of vacation? (If yes, 5 points) Yes No
6. Do you know your cholesterol level? (If yes, 5 points) Is it where it should be? (If no, -4 points) Yes No
7. What did you have for lunch today? Lunch? What lunch? (-5 points) Takeout from the local Grab 'n' Growl (0 points) Food your spouse made (3 points) Food you made (5 points) Food you grew (10 points)
8. How do you handle personal wealth management? I keep my money in an old Crisco can (-5 points) All my money is tied up in the business (0 points) I wish I could save more (3 points) I'll be the most-spoiled 65-year-old on the block (5 points)
9. Do you know the name of the spouse of the CEO of your second-biggest customer? (If yes, 5 points) Yes No
10. It has been more than six months since you had lunch with a nonmanagerial employee (-1 point) talked to a nonmanagerial employee (-5 points) saw a nonmanagerial employee (-10 points)
11. Think of this past office holiday party. Did you have to struggle to remember the name of an employee? (If yes, -3 points) mistake any spouses for employees? (If yes, -5 points) get mistaken for a spouse? (If yes, -10 points)
12. Do you know who would succeed you if you were run over by a truck tomorrow? (If yes, 5 points) Yes No
13. In the past six months have you asked for and received advice from someone who didn't get paid for it and who wasn't related to you? (If yes, 5 points) Yes No
-- Christopher Caggiano
If you scored --
15 points or below: Typical entrepreneur! You're so busy making payroll, you can't begin to think about having a life.
15 to 45 points: Balanced ... pretty much.
45 points or above: You're lying. But if you're not, give us a call at the magazine -- we could use a few lessons.
10. The harmonious workplace
Assets Who Leave at 5 (or Work Till 10)
Run through the list of any company builder's worries, and immediately you'll see people come up. In theory, you should be able to leave your people peeves at the office. In fact, they follow you home. In theory, your staffing hassles shouldn't be addressed in any article that's all about taking care of you. In practice, they are, because the emotional freight of employee issues makes them harder than anything else to shut out. In short, it's really tough not to take that stuff personally.
The issues are all the more acute as a new economy gains momentum -- an economy that relies less on brawn and directives and more on flexibility and individual initiative. They're amplified when there's no corporate human-resources department to fall back on. You're it.
We're not going to set out to rival the many worthy books written on the topic of managing people. (We have a fine monthly column that does just that.) We'll content ourselves with an eight-point checklist of maxims whose application guarantees you'll spend less leisure time fretting about your sub-utopian workplace:
Hire slowly and fire quickly. Lori Sweningson, CEO of Job Boss Software Inc., in Minneapolis, is just one company builder who uses psychological tests to determine the fit of prospective hires.
Hire people who are better or smarter than you. The unwritten Law of Staff Degradation says that people who are a 7 on a scale of zero to 10 (10 is best) usually hire 5's and 6's. Break that rule.
Have a plan for identifying and easing out "toxic" employees. Not the people who rock the boat -- the ones who threaten to sink the boat, and on whom you spend 30% of your time.
Communicate clearly, consistently, and often. Newsletters, bulletins, memos, public-address systems -- whatever works for you. Make everything crystal clear to all, from job descriptions to task outlines to your company's mission.
Meet the people. Phyllis Apelbaum does. The founder of Arrow Messenger Service, in Chicago, regularly rides with her couriers (it's quicker and cheaper than taking cabs, she finds) and gets to hear "the kind of things you just don't hear in the office."
Listen. Ask. Poll your employees twice a year. Learn what's on their minds, and what they'd do about it if they ran the zoo. Wild Oats Markets, in Boulder, Colo., has one of the best employee surveys going. (See "The Motivational Employee-Satisfaction Questionnaire," February, [Article link].)
Give feedback. Evaluate consistently and regularly, using the same metric for everyone with the same job description.
Be fair. Always, and in all things in the workplace.
11. twenty minutes to meditate
We don't necessarily mean meditation in the literal sense. But mental downtime of any sort can have the same idea-generating effect. Consider the case of Cecil Ursprung, CEO of sign maker Reflexite Corp., in Avon, Conn., who gets some of his best ideas while he's a million miles from work.
Some years back, on a beach in the British Virgin Islands, Ursprung was idly building a sand castle with his young son. As he sculpted parapets and moats, Ursprung found himself mentally sketching out the blueprint for a new compensation scheme for his work force. No matter that Ursprung found inspiration on the beach. He hadn't gone looking for it. Nor should you. The wildest ideas rarely emerge when you lie in wait for them; the trick is to let them ambush you.
Creativity, which flowered in us all as children, can be recovered. It must be recovered, because it's a priceless competitive tool. It's what helps tiny players trip their towering counterparts, as Drypers, a disposable-diaper maker and the fastest-growing company on the 1993 Inc. 500 list, did with rival Procter & Gamble not long ago. (Drypers' ads said parents could use any P&G discount coupon to get $2 off the price of a pack of Drypers' diapers instantly.)
But creativity is rarely enhanced by throwing yourself at the project in the wee hours after the umpteenth cup of java. Instead, it erupts in all its finery in the quiet times when your mind is on simmer.
Some people cultivate creativity; they leave the mental door open for catalytic thoughts by scheduling quiet time for themselves. For some it's 15 minutes of meditation; for others, a leisurely lunchtime walk. And for you?
Celebrate, Don't Cerebrate
Those at the helm of growing companies are often so busy raising their own personal performance bars that they don't stop to congratulate themselves -- or anyone else.
Steve Berglas, a clinical psychologist and president of the Executive Stress Clinic, in Chestnut Hill, Mass., puts it this way: entrepreneurs "chronically manifest greater and greater levels of competency to feel psychologically secure." Perhaps because there's no formal feedback, no boss's evaluation of them, company builders apply outlandish pressure to make themselves score even better in an encore performance.
Time out! Make a realistic appraisal of all you've achieved so far. Pat yourself on the back -- heck, reward yourself -- and make sure you do the same publicly for those who helped you crack the sales goal this year. Ceremony, after all, builds a sense of kinship and teamwork. Over time, your business won't be quite the same contender without those qualities.
Here's Looking at You
You've sat through enough eye-glazing speeches to know that you never want to be to blame for anything so narcotic. But how do you know you're not?
A reminder: if you can't sell you, you won't sell much. A tip: get your next public presentation on videotape. (Often, the organizers are taping the conference anyway, so ask for a free copy.) If need be, take a course on presentation skills, where you'll be taped for sure. Use the video to help you rehearse away that stiff body language. While you're at it, make an audiotape of you in full song, and play back all those umms, ers, and bombed jokes in the car on your way home.
Forget for a moment that you have matchless leadership credentials for heading the fund drive for your neighborhood's homeless shelter. Go serve soup there instead.
As you set places, sweep off tables, and wash bowls, you make personal contact in a way you cannot if you are organizing the volunteers' schedules or shaking down other business chieftains for contributions. While following instructions, you gain a perspective your workaday week doesn't include. Most important of all, you're making the banter and extending the human warmth that's needed just as much as the hot soup.
WHY YOUR COMPANY EXISTS
On a Mission
In your heart, you know you are not your company. But it's easy to slip into a lot of "I" statements when you're giving the bankers strategic profit goals or market-penetration targets. We trust you've already penned your personal "purpose statement." (See "Here Lies the CEO," page 2.) Now it's time for a clearheaded assessment of your business's reason for being. So don't do another thing until you've logged the company's mission here:
A really terrific cup of fresh coffee and a couple of anise biscotti once a day
Office basketball hoop (10 minutes' shooting per day encouraged)
Squirt gun (to hose down the idea nixers)
A notebook computer (color, 486 or equivalent, with modem and fax built in) that "docks" with your desktop PC unit
A microcassette tape recorder -- to capture great ideas
An alphanumeric pager -- to sift through your myriad messages
A cellular phone
A car that doesn't break down
1. Lexus LS400 6. Acura Legend
2. Lexus SC300/400 7. Ford Crown Victoria
3. Infiniti J30 8. Lexus ES300
4. Infiniti Q45 9. Toyota Paseo
5. Toyota Camry 10. Buick Park Avenue
(These are 1993's top 10 cars, ranked according to which vehicles had the fewest reported problems in the first three months of ownership, according to J.D. Power and Associates' Initial Quality Study, 1993.)
Research assistance provided by Christopher Caggiano.