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Who Do You Call When No One Has the Answers?

Where the smartest CEOs turn for guidance and perspective when company building gets personal.
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First of all, Dan Caulfield would want you to know that he's OK now. The relocation from Chicago to southern California has gone better than hoped. His new business, the fifth he's started, is doing nicely. His wife is happy. Their two young boys are thriving. And the thing with Ross Perot, the little squabble -- it's all worked out. Caulfield would want you to know that he's feeling blessed these days. He'd want you to know he's thankful.

But he'd want you to know this, too: he might never have reached this point if it weren't for Todd Smart.


It's possible you already know something about relationships like the one Caulfield has with Smart. Not because you know either of them -- though they'll tell you their story in a moment -- but because, if you're lucky, you've seen such relationships yourself. If you're really lucky, you're part of one.

How to describe it? To Caulfield, Smart is a kind of business-ownership mentor, a perspective-providing peer (the two men are almost the same age and have experienced many of the same trials), a personal guide, a lifeline. Some describe such pairings as "one call" relationships, as in: What's the one call you would make (excluding your spouse) if you were in trouble? Caulfield would ring Smart. (And as it happens in this case, sometimes Smart would ring Caulfield.)

And by "trouble," we mean trouble of a particular kind, not purely business trouble. If you're a CEO whose company faces some sort of tactical problem, you probably know to turn to your lawyer, banker, key supplier, or board member, depending on the kind of advice required. The problems and questions that Caulfield and Smart discuss are bigger than that. They're personal. They have to do with balancing ambition with health, work with family, duty to others with responsibility to self. They're about how to grow as a CEO. They're about how to lead a good entrepreneurial life.

In other words, they're the sorts of questions most business owners scarcely have time to think about, let alone get help dealing with. Which is why the effect can be so powerful when real help is there to be had. "Lifeline," both Caulfield and Smart would say, is not too strong a term.


BORDER TROUBLE: "Problems with your love life, family life, stress level," says Dan Caulfield, "become the business's issues."


To research this article, Inc interviewed scores of CEOs who have such one-call relationships. We asked them whom they relied on and why, how often they met with their one-call mentor, and what advice they'd received.

The only pattern to the answers, it turns out, is that there is no pattern, apart from the consistent finding that business owners who have such a relationship are uniformly passionate about what it has meant to their lives -- and about the need for someone to provide that kind of help.

"CEOs don't really have anyone they can turn to," explains Atlanta pastor and author Ike Reighard, who has become the touchstone for numerous entrepreneurs. "Sometimes they're the most well-connected people and yet the loneliest you will ever meet. It's hard to have trusting relationships when people so often want something from you."

Nevertheless, the company builders we talked to did develop trusting relationships -- with a former colleague or an old teacher or a fellow member of a peer group or a customer who turned into a friend. (For an overview of the many kinds of people CEOs turn to for advice when the questions are personal as well as professional, see "Not Just Anybody.". For a look at one particularly unexpected but popular personal mentor -- management wiseman Peter Drucker -- see "The Uber Mentor.")

The pairings, and how they function, are as varied and idiosyncratic as the CEOs who rely on them. Ellen Aschendorf, who runs Egg Electric Inc., in New York City, leans on a fellow female CEO, a general contractor whom she met on a job 18 years ago. "She's in my industry; she's married with two children (I have three); she's about the same age. She's someone who can relate to my life. We speak several times a week," Aschendorf says. Randy Fields, cofounder of Mrs. Fields Cookies and now CEO of Park City Group, in Park City, Utah, turns to a former employee whom he now calls his "consigliere." Fields insists on getting in touch only when confronting a turning point or crisis, rather than on a regular basis. "If you force meetings on a periodic interval, you run the risk that it's just checking, it's not asking for critical advice," he says, which trivializes the relationship. "It degenerates into consulting."

But it's hard to picture the relationships described by Merrily Orsini or Cameron Burr or Irene Cohen, among many others, degenerating into consulting. Orsini, head of My Virtual Corp, in Louisville, has turned to her therapist as many as a dozen times a year since 1985 to help her sort out her personal life when it gets confused with the running of her growing company. Burr, of the Burr Group, in New Canaan, Conn., pointedly turns to his father -- People Express Airlines founder Don Burr -- instead of to a peer. "You want someone who's been around the block a few times, who has a more seasoned perspective on life issues," he says. Cohen, CEO of FlexCorpSystems, in New York City, differs from most business owners by passionately advocating many lifelines. She has built a network of her own and is also part of the Committee of 200, a group of female entrepreneurs. When she has a problem outside work, she takes it to a meeting of her Committee subgroup or calls the person in her network who's right for the question at hand.

Is it any surprise that no two one-call relationships are alike or that CEOs lean on their mentors in different ways?

Perhaps the shortest path to understanding the role that a one-call adviser can play in a CEO's life is to hear the parties in such a relationship try to explain it. Here, in their own words, are Dan Caulfield, 35, CEO of HQ Group, in Oceanside, Calif., and Todd Smart, 34, a business founder and currently marketing vice-president at Tabin Corp., in Chicago.


Dan Caulfield: The longer you're in business, the more you realize how much the business is a part of you and vice versa. If there's a problem with your love life, family life, stress level ... then those personal issues become the business's issues. We're the victims of our own drive. You need someone to give you very realistic, appropriate, frank, personal feedback -- someone who has the same perspective, someone whose experiences you can learn from so you don't have to do everything the hard way -- and you don't always have to make the same mistakes. Todd does that for me. I met him through YEO [the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization] in 1995.

A couple years ago I went through a particularly difficult period. I'd brought in Ross Perot as an investor in my third start-up, MilitaryHub.com, and then got into an epic equity battle. The business failed, and the dissolution of that company led to the slow, painful death of two others I'd started earlier. It was very serious.

And as all that was happening, I just kept pushing -- and Todd recognized the signs of depression. I was coming in earlier and earlier to work but getting less and less done. I had a horrible rash all over my body and migrating joint pain. But I'd been in the military, and that part of me kept telling myself, "You sissy. Stress doesn't affect you. Keep laying out the goals. Keep taking the steps." But it was amazing. I just couldn't do it. Todd encouraged me not only to seek medical help but also to bring balance back into my life. To work out. Go on adventurous trips.

"You know, Dan," he told me at one point, "you have too many life-changing events going on at the same time. You started a new company, got a multimillion-dollar investment from an entrepreneurial legend, got married, moved to California, got a dog and new house, and have a kid on the way. Just about every kind of major event, all at the same time. And you can really only deal with one at a time."

I lost the 30-plus pounds I'd gained and made lots of changes. One of them was deciding to change my work schedule. I got the idea from Todd.


Todd Smart: Back when we met, Dan and I clicked right off the bat. What was interesting to me was how the peer-to-peer aspect made it really easy. We related well on business and life. This is not a story of somebody meeting their dry cleaner and really finding a sounding board there.

But when we met, I was the one who was in tough times. Dan was going through aggressive growth, I was downsizing and reorganizing. I was stuck, and Dan was a guy who had a lot of vision and confidence and go-go-go that was inspiring and motivating and tons of fun. Later, when he was in trouble, he still had that face on -- but really with an undercurrent of not being sure. Things weren't going the way he'd expected with Ross. Dan had always been able to put together a plan and implement it; with Ross in the picture, it wasn't clear he could. Who got to say go? Who decided direction? And as much as leaders would like to think they can hide that mess, people know. Eventually, Dan didn't know what to trust, what was real and what wasn't. A scary place to be. You second-guess your own judgment. [Editor's note: Perot, having partnered with Caulfield in January 2000, ultimately gained control of the company; Caulfield left the business in April of that year.]


BEEN THERE: "I don't think I'd have been able to help," says Todd Smart, "if I hadn't gone through a similar experience."


He was in a screwed-up spot -- I could see it. What I did was try to be in communication whenever Dan was interested. I tried to ask questions and listen intently and let him know that it was normal to be feeling the way he was feeling -- you feel like you should be doing something, but you don't know what. Maybe that's OK right now. Don't beat yourself up.

I could see it all more clearly than Dan could at the time. But I don't think I'd have been able to help if I hadn't gone through a similar experience. I was real aware of the price I paid.


Caulfield: Now I work a three-and-a-half-day week. Todd's been a student of lifestyle balance for a long time and had heard of the approach from a business coach. I work full days Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday -- I often work a 12-hour day. Wednesday morning I work at the office, but Wednesday afternoon is kind of mine. Every week then I do something for myself, something not business related. Take a class, study for class, read books, chill out, whatever. Friday is a buffer day. I don't go to the office, but what I do can be business related in the sense of spending the time thinking about business, reading magazines, doing all those things you never have time to do because you can only do them alone.

I never work on the weekends anymore. We have a strong rule at home to try not even to talk about work. I'm so in love with business, I could end up talking about it all the time. Makes you seem very shallow.

What's amazing is that I get a lot more work done this way. An enormous amount of work. I'm a sprinter.


Smart: The biggest parallel between my earlier troubles and what happened to Dan wasn't in the specifics -- I had a business fail and a breakup with my girlfriend. It was in the way you almost get a desire to isolate yourself, to push away resources and people. I don't know what the root of that is. Could be shame, guilt, fear, embarrassment. Just not wanting to talk about the obvious, about what's going on. I went through that. I distanced myself from important relationships with friends and family. It was almost like hiding out. Not wanting to face the facts about what was going on in my business or my life. I remember going to movies, double features, just trying to get far from reality. It just wasn't a healthy time. I wish I had a magic formula for reaching somebody in that stage.

When Dan was struggling, I'd pull him aside and say, "Hey, just don't push me away." Then half the time he would still do it.


Caulfield: Whenever we get on the phone, it's not like we don't start with specific business issues. Equity and ownership issues, for example. We start with those kinds of things, then start talking about my family life, his love life. After that we might go into different business ideas we've been having, things we're doing in our companies. Usually, we get off the phone with three or four different people to call.

It was very informal for a while -- sometimes two or three months would go by before we'd talk -- but every time we talk, we realize how valuable the time is. Once after it was spotty, it took six hours over three days to cover the stuff we wanted to talk about. Now we've formalized it so that we talk at least once a month, on the third Wednesday.

I know that sounds like kind of a formal way to set up a relationship with a friend, and the fact is that it is very formal. But it's mutually understood that the reason we do this is because of what we do for each other and how we augment each other's personal and professional lives. That's why we're friends, that's why we talk. And not only is there nothing wrong with that, there's a tremendous amount right with it. It's one of my most valued friendships both personally and professionally. When you're an entrepreneur, it's almost impossible to tell the difference.


Smart: Every time we talk, we go, "Man, for crying out loud, we need to do this more often."

The process is kind of an information dump from both sides. We talk about relationships we're both familiar with, without getting gossipy. Then we talk about business and brainstorm about business ideas and concepts.

First things first: you have to able to talk about what's so, about what happened as opposed to the story we all made up about what happened. A lot of people live in a way that involves constantly selling themselves and buying their own story. But you can't have the kind of relationship that Dan and I do unless both sides are committed to talking about what's so, rather than the drama. And you can't have topics that are off limits. If you can't tell the person he's fat, then it's like the pink elephant in the middle of the room. You can't say, "We can talk about everything except my marriage." Well, no. If there's something you don't want to talk about, that's probably the thing you need to talk about.

A lot of people don't get into relationships that are straight, like the one Dan and I try to have. These are life-changing relationships. But you don't get the benefit unless you take the risks.

Next thing: when the two of you distinguish something that's screwed up, the person facing it has to act. The relationship's not worth it if one side's not going to take action. Otherwise you're just playing footsie.

A lot of people never take the risk of establishing a relationship like this in their lives. They just hide out. Have 2.5 kids in the suburbs. Commute an hour to work. Wear their smiley work face.


Caulfield: Over time, the more adversity you face, the more you realize that failure's not a onetime event. So you start to put together a safety net for yourself. Maybe it's peers, YEO, family, good friends. To be honest, I stay away from less-meaningful relationships now. I don't enjoy casual friendships and everyday banter about the weather. This is about your balance, your well-being. It's really about taking yourself to the next level. This is about your happiness.


Jill Hecht Maxwell is a staff writer at Inc. Michael Hopkins is Inc's executive editor.


Not Just Anybody

When company building becomes personally challenging (and when is it not?) and CEOs need somebody for help or for guidance or just to be a sounding board, to whom do they turn? To find out, Inc conducted several utterly unscientific surveys among several constituencies, including readers of Inc.com and members of the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization. The results are not statistically predictive and are tilted toward peer groups -- because a peer group is what YEO happens to be -- but they're illuminating nonetheless. The obvious observation: to find the right personal mentor for you, look everywhere.

Question:
Whom do you turn to?

Answer:
Business partner: 23%
Peer group: 19%
Fellow CEO: 13%
Relative: 12%
Former classmate: 6%
Friend: 4%
Former boss/colleague: 4%
Spiritual adviser: 4%
God: 3%
Executive coach: 2%
Counselor/therapist: 2%
Neighbor: 2%
Board member: 2%
Customer: 2%
Lawyer: 1%
Chief financial officer: 1%


The Inc Life

Who Do You Call When No One Has the Answers?
The Uber Mentor
It's a Big World, After All


Please E-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Sep 1, 2002




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