As their companies grow, most CEOs find themselves emotionally at sea, struggling to find the energy and motivation that was once so natural and exhilarating. Can the search succeed?
Douglas Peterson just wanted to confess it all to his boss: that he had begun to loathe coming in every day, that he had lost his affection for the company, that he felt stuck. In his imagination, Peterson had no trouble coming clean. But in reality, he could not do it.
In reality, Peterson was the boss.
During those dim months in the fall of 1989, the president and chief executive strode into his Elk Grove Village, Ill., office as if he were stepping into one of the spotlights his company, Pete's Lights Inc., manufactures. His role: pretending that the business, a $1.5-million maker of stage lighting, was thriving. He came in every morning with a big smile tattooed across his face and a bag of reassuring words to sprinkle all around. With his performance, Peterson gave the impression that he was deftly guiding the enterprise toward a bright financial future.
Nothing of the sort was happening. But Peterson believed that if he acted as downtrodden as he felt, everyone else would give up. "I was keeping us alive by saying over and over again that we would make it through," he claims. Management-by-mantra was his only refuge. A certified public accountant, he had started the business with his younger brother back in 1985. After one too many screaming bouts, his brother, who knew the industry, left in September 1989. Fearing customer reaction to his brother's departure, Peterson whittled prices lower than he should have. "We were barely eking anything out," he says.
So he faked it -- for as long as he could, anyway.
His undoer came in unlikely, if fashionable, garb. Just a couple of months after his brother's departure, Peterson began working with a new client, the singing group New Kids on the Block. Keeping the Kids kindled could add a precious $250,000 to the company's annual sales, he knew. "But I could not get my head into helping this client," Peterson says sadly. "I was worn out from everything that had occurred."
He lip-synched his part of the job at first, dispatching lieutenants to handle personnel and technical problems, and staying as uninvolved as possible. Then came a pair of calamities that brought his detachment to center stage.
One afternoon, while the crew was setting up the show, a spotlight broke off its hanging arm and fell to the ground. Nobody even bothered to tell Peterson. But he couldn't avoid hearing about an incident shortly thereafter involving a crew member's dismissal. The singing group's lighting director, enraged, reached for the phone. "I'm going to fire your company in two more seconds," he roared at Peterson. Despite the problems on the New Kids' tour, the only plane Peterson ever hopped was not to visit his customer but to take a weeklong retreat in La Jolla, Calif. "I just felt bummed out about the business," he says. "I wanted to be left alone."
He got his wish. It wasn't until he returned that he found out Pete's Lights had been fired. New Kids on the Block, a quarter-million-dollar client, was gone. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "I developed a major knot in my stomach."
Untying that knot led Peterson to separate the tangled strands of obligation and ego that bound him to his business. He confronted hard questions about where he had lost his motivation and why. When did the company become such a drain on him? What would it take to reinvigorate himself?
Most entrepreneurs start out their business lives motivated by drives they don't fully understand; as a company grows, they scramble to recapture that feeling, damaging their businesses and themselves in the process. Peterson was lucky. The crisis impelled him to forge a healthier relationship with Pete's Lights. It didn't come naturally.
"I realized I had lost the motivation to get out there and make something happen with my business," says the 34-year-old ex-marine. "I really sweated out some changes. It's difficult to do. But now I know how to stop those mental gyrations."
It sounds unbearably nostalgic, but that doesn't make it any less true: those days when you were starting out were the most motivating days you'll know.
Not necessarily because you were younger, though you undoubtedly were. Nor simply because you had something to prove, which you undoubtedly did. More than that, the circumstances you created gave you few emotional choices. If you couldn't rouse yourself to knock on yet another banker's door, the money wasn't coming. Whether you were packing orders in your bedroom/warehouse at 3 a.m. or patching together yet another barely serviceable prototype in the wee hours, the company was running your life.
Sooner or later that equation flips. The circumstantial din dies down. With less to feed on, that original drive you felt begins to weaken. "When I started out I was thinking, You guys fired me, so I'm going to open up across the street," says Keith Dunn, president and CEO of McGuffey's Restaurants Inc., in Asheville, N.C. "Two years later I grew up and realized that wasn't what life was all about."
Replacing that initial source of motivation, whatever it was, can be a frightening task. So much so, in fact, that most entrepreneurs can't even confront the pain of trying. Swerving around introspection, they drive themselves to distraction -- and destruction -- by attempting to recapture the urgency they felt back when everything boiled down to survival.
Entrepreneurs could do themselves, and their companies, a galaxy's worth of good if they would accept one simple truth about their motivation. Well, make that two truths. The first is that it isn't healthy to motivate yourself by continually whipping up the kind of bedlam that automatically electrifies your psyche. "I treat many people who are successful in business," warns Dr. Steven Berglas, a psychiatrist and management consultant who heads the Executive Stress Clinic, in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "They feel they cannot rest." Second, motivating yourself will never be as simple or instinctual as it was at the start. Face it: there's nothing that motivates quite the same way as a $200,000 loan backed up by all your personal assets. Even if you start another venture, you'll never have as much to prove again.
If you stick around your company, that kick you got out of being the key player -- the one who convinced suppliers, dubious bankers, and prospective employees that their faith in you could give rise to something mighty -- has to yield to other kinds of fulfillment. "There's this little twinge I get that says, Gee, I wish I were more important around here," admits W. Leon Pyle, chief executive of Sterling Homes, a $49-million home builder. How you respond to -- indeed, whether you even acknowledge -- that voice inside has a tremendous bearing on your future and your company's.
Nobody's suggesting that entrepreneurs generally fail to recognize their own shifting requirements. Given their strong personalities and what Berglas calls their "chronic need for new challenges," most entrepreneurs can't subsist for long on an adrenaline level that has dropped like a barometer before a typhoon. They find ways to restoke that tummy inferno they desperately need.
But talk with them, and you'll find that entrepreneurs who get beyond the start-up stage frantically try to recapture as many motivating aspects of that time as they can. Here are some of the most common strategies they employ:
Find a New Mission
No goal is quite as all-consuming as survival. When climbing sales make that threat seem a safe distance away -- some entrepreneurs contend -- it's time to find a new focus.
Gary Cino, for instance, has found an energizing goal for himself: profitability. Cino, president and CEO of Step Ahead Investments, in West Sacramento, Calif., has opened 17 98-Cent Clearance Centers in the past five years. This year, with sales nearing $30 million, Cino has decreed there will be no new stores. Instead, he has embarked on a yearlong crusade to improve efficiency; for instance, he wants to boost each store's sales by 15%.
"It may not be as exhilarating as a grand-opening weekend, but when you see an idea you've implemented that proves beneficial, that has its rewards," says Cino. "After the company has obtained its maximum bottom-line potential, which is still unknown, then my attitude will be, Let's go for some more growth."
Stoke up on Affirmation
There's nothing as invigorating as the ego boost that comes from having others -- some of them virtual strangers -- sign on when your company is just a dream. What they are saying when they agree to serve as customers, suppliers, employees, or distributors is that they believe in you. They may never express that as unambiguously again.
Unless, of course, you have at your disposal a group of confident and enthusiastic admirers who can assure you, in persuasive tones, that you are on the right track. Mike Ward has found a whole assortment of those mentors. Some of them are people whose voices and names you'd likely recognize -- Brian Tracy, for example, or Dennis Waitley. The audiotapes of these folks, and many others, have helped Ward sustain that feeling of being on top. "It's not as if I turn on the tape and I'm a new man," says Ward, who started his Pasadena, Calif., life-insurance agency, MLW Group, in 1981. "But if I feel negative, the tape can help me wash that out. Sometimes you feel you've tapped your horizons, but then you can visualize doing tremendous things beyond what you can do now." Though MLW Group's commissions now stand at $250,000, Ward's 10-year plan calls for an ambitious climb to $5 million.
To get there, Ward follows a tight regimen. The 47-year-old listens to tapes from 7 to 8 in the morning and, when he's not dictating, on his 15-minute drive to and from the office. If he has the time -- or an especially big day ahead -- he'll amend his mental workout with a motivational reading. Over the course of this year, Ward's ears will take in some 250 hours of tape, a $2,000 expense. "When I'm on vacation, I actually miss my tapes," he says. "I think I could live without them, but I'm not sure."
Thrive on Crisis
"I can't get psyched about doing the P&L or figuring out the payroll," admits Keith Dunn of McGuffey's. "But it's a great feeling when everybody turns to me and says, 'OK, what do we do, boss?' "
Adding new restaurants to the seven existing McGuffey's units can "bring me alive," Dunn says. But between openings, he's had to rely on the only other predicament that gives him a rush of energy. "My eyes light up," Dunn says, "when I hear of a crisis."
Last fall, for instance, 118 people contracted salmonella poisoning at one of his restaurants. As unappetizing as that sounds, Dunn characterizes the event as "fun and challenging." There were TV and newspaper reporters everywhere; the victims had to be soothed; there was even a subsidiary controversy involving health-department procedures. "It was a classic case of 'Drop everything you are doing and dig into this,' " says Dunn.
So, too, was the news that a local restaurateur was going under. Would McGuffey's be interested in acquiring the site? "Everyone started scrambling," says Dunn, with obvious relish. "For 48 hours I played boss." When an assistant manager quits, Dunn rushes out to change that person's mind; when someone fails to show up for work, Dunn investigates; dealing with thefts, brawls, threatened litigation -- these "are what I am good at," he says.
What he's not good at is enduring the times between crises. He tends to oversleep, overeat, and drink too much. "I've got to find a way to snap out of it," vows Dunn, who anticipates revenues of $14 million this year. "There's always something to do. Ultimately, I guess, you just have to stop feeling sorry for yourself and do it."
Like Keith Dunn, Kathy Taggares, of K. T.'s Kitchens Inc., in Glendale, Calif., thrives on catastrophe. But rather than wait for crises to come along, she manufactures her own supply. "At the end of the day, if I don't go home totally exhausted, I don't feel good," explains Taggares, who expects her company to sell $20 million worth of salad dressing and pizza this year. "I have to hurt a little bit."
With $200,000 in cash and $800,000 in bank loans, she bought an $8-million salad-dressing factory from Marriott Corp. in June 1987; within a year, it was very profitable and hence exceedingly mundane. "It wasn't challenging enough for me," says Taggares, 38. "I want to be driven to the edge."
She almost drove off. In the fall of 1988 Taggares plowed her profits into a new heap of problems, in the form of a company that made pizza crusts. "In hindsight, it didn't make any sense, but I felt compelled to do it," she admits.
Given her knowledge of the pizza industry and the market research she had dug up -- namely, in both cases, none -- she had every reason to expect there would be some synergy between her two product lines. There wasn't. Though pizza and salad dressing may be consumed similarly or even simultaneously, they're distributed through very different channels.
She ended up building an entire pizza factory from scratch. Then she managed to wangle her way into some very rewarding niches, such as warehouse stores. The company now produces 40 kinds of pies, and 10 times as many varieties of problems. There's plenty of machinery that can malfunction, and employees are always a reliable source of grief. Should the commotion die down, Taggares says, she'll buy another company.
"I think this will stay the most stimulating thing in my life until I grow too old to do much of anything," she says. "We have days when it's kind of smooth, and those are not my greatest days. I need the pain."
Here's something else you might try the next time you need an emotional jump-start: a hot bath.
In 24 hours, you might very well crave another energizing dunk. But frankly, most of the motivational strategies entrepreneurs use -- variations of the approaches outlined above -- are about as long-lasting. Taggares needs constant infusions of pain, just as Ward's ears must absorb a fresh blast of tape with every sunrise. Dunn is good for as long as the current crisis lasts. And what will Gary Cino do if he can't open stores next year? Ask him. "I want to continue the aggressive growth pattern of the past," he says sternly.
Entrepreneurs, it seems, manage their emotional resources just as Wall Street CEOs mind their conglomerates: it's largely a quarter-to-quarter proposition, with barely a thought toward the long term. "I just might pop one day," notes Taggares rather cavalierly.
To be fair, everyone is probably guilty of relying on some pick-me-up, be it crisis or coffee. Caught up in the adrena-line rush of this moment and wired for the next one, it's easy to lose sight of the shortcomings of those tactics. Unless, of course, you find yourself coping with a shortage of your stimulant of choice. Faced with a lull in crises and restaurant openings lately, Keith Dunn has come toe-to-toe with the realization that "all these games don't work after a while."
Dunn has tried just about everything he can think of to revive his energies. He's changed his hours and worn loud Hawaiian shirts. Like Cino, he's looked deep inside his P&L for new challenges; the company has cut turnover in half among its hourly employees. He has set monthly and yearly goals and has devised contests, even entering a Best Legs competition himself. Experimenting in the kitchen, he concocted a new appetizer called fried pickles. It flopped. He has taken on causes, such as recycling, and he now gives about two speeches a month. He even tried a vacation. Don't ask. "I came back feeling both unpsyched and unrested," he offers.
Lately he's begun to think that the only way out may lie in setting goals for himself beyond McGuffey's. Politics, perhaps. "I'm not sure exactly what my path will be," Dunn admits.
If Dunn's search sounds awfully desperate, it's a good measure of the magnitude of the distress that he -- and other entrepreneurs -- try so hard to dodge. It doesn't take a psychologist to hypothesize that Taggares (like Dunn) is masking some greater pain by creating painful situations that enable her to come out on top; and Ward seems to believe that he's virtually nothing without his cassettes. Perhaps all three fear their energy will dissipate, leaving their enterprises to crumble. "For many entrepreneurs," notes Berglas, "stopping, psychologically, is death."
Where does that equation come from? Celebrated as the ultimate people of action, entrepreneurs tend to think of themselves as the sum total of their accomplishments -- and nothing more. If I can build a big enough company, or make enough money, goes the reasoning, then my family/friends/colleagues will accept me, and they'll even put up with some of my eccentricities. "I believed I had to do things to be lovable," admits Leon Pyle. "Then I got to thinking, Who cares whether there's one more building company doing $75 million versus $50 million?"
Exactly what got the 50-year-old Pyle to thinking was -- as is so often the case -- a tragedy in his personal life. A traumatic divorce began to change his view. "It tuned me in to what was real," he says. "Every two weeks I'd visit my children, and when I'd leave, they'd stand there crying. The pain is a real shocker, and it opens the door to your head."
It took some time before Pyle peeked all the way inside. Starting his own company in 1986, he set out to build sales of $25 million a year. Then he convinced himself that $50 million sounded better. As that figure came into view, he doubled his dreams, to $100 million.
Working with a therapist, though, helped Pyle catch hold of himself. He talked more about what else he wanted out of life, and he glimpsed the fears that his insatiable drive was masking. "I realized that people don't think about what size company they've built as they're dying," he says. "They think about their relationships." So Pyle has set to work improving his unsatisfying ties with people. "I'm getting to know different parts of me," he says.
The journey has led him far afield from his company. (One of his goals has served him well: he has far more than the $2 million he wanted to sock away in the bank.) Pyle found artistic endeavors such as studying German, drawing, and making pottery so fulfilling that he cut his workweek down to three days. His disengagement didn't happen all at once. "A couple of years ago I started to let go," he admits. "It took me six months to come to terms with my need to be the driving force of everything at the company." First, he started coming in at 8:30 a.m. instead of the customary 8. "I feared everybody would start coming in at 8:30, but nobody did," he says. Similarly, when he reduced his days -- handing off daily operations to a partner who is the company's president -- he was surprised to find that "the company didn't need me as much as I thought."
Eventually, Pyle plans to give up the CEO title and act only as a consultant to and investor in Sterling Homes. "There has certainly been pain in the introspection," he confesses. "But that pain has made me accessible to much more joy. And how many joyful businesspeople do you know?" Not many, but then Pyle doesn't consider himself a businessman much anymore. Of course, he can't tune out the siren song of the start-up. He admits to having flirted with the idea of opening a cafÃ© or two. But he's convinced -- more or less -- that such temptations represent the last fearful twitches of his former self.
"I don't need to start more businesses," he says firmly. "That would just get in the way."
Is that the solution, then? Does hitching a ride with your innate driving forces mean ditching your company? The answer comes down to this: it depends.
No one can tell you exactly how to defuse your dangerously misunderstood drives. It should be obvious by now, though, that they pose as tangible a risk as, say, rising interest rates. Taggares, for instance, admits that she could go off and acquire a fatal mistake. "I like to think I wouldn't roll the dice with everything anymore," she says tentatively. Dunn knows that "there are times when my partners and I have deliberately done things to distract us from the routine, and it ends up creating more havoc than good." How much damage could they unwittingly do? Carl Samuels, president of Business Life Transitions Inc., a consulting firm in Seal Beach, Calif., that specializes in succession, observes that some entrepreneurs sabotage their own businesses because they no longer feel relevant.
Needing to be the focal point may present the highest hurdle to confronting yourself. It's easy -- but defeating -- to argue that you'd best not meddle with your motivation, because so many people around you are feeding off it. And no doubt that was the case when you were starting out. "People say, 'How are you doing?' and I say, 'Fantastic,' because that's what they expect out of me. They have this image of me as Mr. Positive," says Dunn. "I'm not allowed to be any other way."
That ought to be true during the start-up stage, when those around you need to believe that lack of feedback can't penetrate your resolve and that disappointment, for you, never hardens into defeat. But as the company grows, it's also part of the founder's responsibility to tarnish that original star system. You don't want to sustain a superhero image forever. "I'm everybody's mother," says Taggares. That may sound fulfilling, but wait until she disappoints her employees. Then Taggares will have an adolescent rebellion on her hands. "An entrepreneur should get people growing so that they are all adults motivated from within," advises Robert McLaughlin, a consultant and psychologist in Wellesley, Mass. "Let them become more capable even to the point where they threaten you."
But of course, you won't feel threatened -- providing your whole identity is no longer tied up in your business. Relying on the company you founded to satisfy your motivational needs in the same way it did when you started out is like depending on a childhood friend to be your best buddy for life. That can happen, but the relationship will have to survive many incarnations.
And there's no avoiding the pain. After all, you've invested a lot in your identity as a company builder, and it's hard to bear the discomfort of not knowing exactly who you are anymore. Not that you have to set yourself completely adrift. Interim roles, such as teaching, can provide a comfortable context for self-exploration. And it's always helpful to find peripheral challenges, such as competitive sports. It's also useful to join groups, where, instead of looking to you for the answers, fellow CEOs will pose hard questions. Aside from the liberating feeling you'll get from admitting you don't know it all, you're also likely to encounter role models, people who have stopped typecasting themselves.
Knowing what you need to stay motivated -- rather than trying to stunt your company's growth for the sake of feeling as you did in the old days -- remains the key to any lasting peace of mind. Of course, we all have days when we feel as Yul Brynner must have felt as the curtain rose on his umpzillionth performance of The King & I. But there's always comfort and satisfaction in knowing, and returning to, what you love best.
Ultimately, that's what revived Doug Peterson. After losing a client and nearly punching out Pete's Lights for good, Peterson came to terms with what was really eating him: with his brother gone, he felt lonely. Now when he feels down, Peterson spends time in the company shop. Show me how to solder terminals onto wires, he'll ask employees, or teach me how to run the lighting console. He may show them how to make a plan for building a new lighting system, or walk them through the pricing process. Sometimes he'll pose as an outsider and challenge workers to rethink their methods: Why do these bolts have an extra quarter inch of play? Is there a better way to connect trusses? "It's a source of pleasure because we come up with ideas," says Peterson. "I love teaching, and I love learning."
Peterson's wife jokingly -- or maybe not so jokingly -- came up with a name for that phenomenon. She calls it the Treehouse Club. Peterson and his employees are in it when they huddle in the shop, getting all worked up over one another's ideas, acting goofy. "It just reminds me that the whole point of being in business is to have human interaction," says Peterson. "These things are so much more important than the price of fasteners."
"We're back there and we're spreading a little happiness," he adds. "It's what I like to do. And, really, what else is there?"