Will your footsteps matter?


Will your footsteps matter?

Five years ago this month I made a conscious decision to devote myself to the service of others.  I did so after coming to the realization, in the middle of my career, that a life without a purpose was a life I would regret having lived.   I imagined what I would say on my deathbed about my life had I continued what I had been doing, and I didn't like what I heard.  I'd have hopefully raised my child to become a good and honorable man -- which is certainly not nothing.  And I'd leave him with some means to make his mark.  Again, not nothing.  But could I say that I'd used my talents to make a difference?  To help the world become a better place? Would I have a psychic legacy that I could point to where people's lives would have been demonstrably better because I left footsteps on the earth?

Thus began my personal odyssey to find a way to use my talents to make a difference in the world.  I began by giving my time to those who have served us so well and for so long in the decade since September 11, 2001.  I volunteered at the Armed Services YMCA, at The Mission Continues, at the Travis Manion Foundation (where I now sit on the Board of Directors).  I began mentoring transitioning veterans and helping them make connections in the civilian world. I later started and built a nonprofit organization, Mission Edge, that helps other nonprofits build the needed infrastructure so they can achieve their mission.  

I'm not done, but that end-of-life conversation I imagine having is starting to sound more and more meaningful.  And that's how I gauge the progress I'm making.  Macabre?  Maybe.  But it's effective for me.

I'm reminded often about this quote from Emerson that is so on-point:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hopefully Ralph won't mind if I amend his sentiment slightly: Perhaps the purpose of life is not to be happy, but the act of serving others -- honorably and compassionately -- will make you happy.   The most joyful moments that I have had in my life -- outside of family -- has come working with veterans and their families, and with those I have coached and mentored.  

How will you feel about your life's reflection when the end comes?  Will you feel satisfied? Will you feel like you did what you set out to do?  Will your footsteps matter?


The Four "A's" of Successful Partnerships


The Four "A's" of Successful Partnerships

On a recent trip up to Los Angeles I had the chance to spend a few hours with a couple of attorneys who have a successful law practice together.  

They serve many small clients in work that is demanding and requires a lot of coordination and cooperation between them.  It's a recipe for a stressful working environment, particularly since they are short-staffed and often need to handle things a legal assistant would ordinarily do.  One partner is male, the other female. 

I asked them how they manage to stay in sync with each other, given the pressures of the job and their separate and full social lives.

We use the four A’s — appreciation, apology, acknowledgement, and affection. We sit down every week and check in with each other.

I had never heard of the "four A's" before, though I'm familiar with other relationship-based norms that require regular check-ins.  Turns out the four A's are a well-known tool for marriage therapy, which given the nature of business partnerships, it sounds like something to consider.  

So let's go through them:

Appreciation: Simple, powerful and often forgotten: say "thank you" to your partner(s) for their hard work over the week or month.  Tell them you value what they do and that you appreciate how it adds to your life.

Acknowledge: Let your partner(s) know that you can see what they see: maybe they worked harder that week than you, or maybe something came up that caused you to lose focus on the business.  Acknowledge this and give credence to their feelings, which may run the gamut from frustration to resentment.  

Apologize: After acknowledging their feelings apologize for what transpired.  Let them know that you failed to carry your weight.  Tell them you will do the same for them when the roles are reversed.  Saying "I'm sorry" is a powerful tonic to the kind of frustration that builds up over time in any relationship.  It's also a sign of humility -- an under-appreciated aspect of leadership.

Affection: Whether it be a fist bump, a high-five or a hug, the end of the discussion should be sealed with a sign of affection.  It says, "we're good" and "let's move on".

The Four A's provides a simple process for doing something that isn't always simple or easy: keeping partners in sync.  Do it weekly or monthly and it will help you avoid the kind of festering problems that lead to big blow ups (or break ups).


In Leadership, Context is Everything


In Leadership, Context is Everything

I recently had a discussion with a former U.S. Marine and who served in Iraq (I'll call him Brad), who took part in the first battle of Fallujah in April, 2004.  

He's a quiet guy who doesn't often talk about his experience in war, but when he does I am always amazed at what I learn.  

We were talking casually about a mutual friend who had been an MP (military policeman), and the discussion turned animatedly to an experience Brad had with MPs in Iraq.  As the Marines were getting ready to push into the city at the start of the battle, Brad was asked to retrieve from the armory a vital weapon for clearing mines.  Jumping in his truck, he raced across the base, fearing he would be late and jeopardize his unit's move as the combat began.  As he neared the armory he noticed in his rearview mirror flashing red lights of an MP pulling him over.  He was gobsmacked.  "Does this guy not understand what's going on?" he thought to himself?  We are about to invade Fallujah and he's giving me a ticket!"

Eleven years later, this story was recounted with humor.  But it also carries a key lesson for those in positions of authority: context matters.  In an ordinary situation, the speed limit on that base in Iraq was important and should have been enforced.  But in the context of the moment -- where frontline troops were geared for battle -- it seems like a petty nuisance totally at odds with the situation they were in.

So in life and in leadership, context is hugely important.  What decisions you make as a leader, how you react to adversity, how you convey yourself to others -- all depend on the who, what and where of that situation.  The goal is to find that balance of rewarding initiative while also ensuring that process is followed.  

This is especially true if you are involved in any kind of a business that services clients.  Process is a key element of maintaining a standard of quality and ensuring satisfied customers.  But you also want to hire people who take initiative and will address client needs on a case-by-case basis, even if that means going outside the process you have established.  It's a tough balance to strike. It requires you to trust your people and reward them for taking risks when the situation requires it -- while at the same time reinforcing the belief that process needs to be followed whenever practicable.  

This is where leadership comes in.  It's up to you to instill in your team the confidence to assess the context of the situations they are in, and to know when they require something outside the norm.  How is this best done?  By laying out some clear high-level values that create a guide when dealing with clients, co-workers or customers.  

Nordstrom is a business that provides a great example of this.  The department store is known for its customer service, and instills in its sales associates the ability to satisfy its customers.  Nordstrom's corporate values statement includes this:

“We want our employees to take the initiative, and we’ll support your efforts to deliver exceptional service”.

Nordstrom employees know that they make decisions on behalf of their clients and will be supported by management; it empowers them to understand the value of that customer relationship, and to take that context into account.

And note: I'm happy to say that Brad managed to talk his way out of that ticket, and made it to the battle on time.  He took part in the Battle for Fallujah between 4 April, 2004 and 1 May, 2004. He came home, left the Marine Corps and is now an accountant in San Diego, California.








To Partner or Not to Partner...


To Partner or Not to Partner...

Partnerships aren't given enough attention when entrepreneurs are just starting out.  

It's natural that, in the excitement of a new venture, founders come together with rose-colored glasses, preferring to see each other's strengths rather than examining weaknesses. There is often a lot of pressure to find the right talent to fill gaps in a founding team, and so there are a fair number of "shotgun marriages" that occur on the way to incorporation.  Sometimes it works out, and the partners find themselves a good match.  But more often than not, business marriages of convenience become painful broken relationships that end in estrangement, litigation and divorce.  

I've had a number of these failed partnerships, and looking back, their demise isn't at all a surprise. My first business was started with a college friend and another guy who we met through a mutual friend.  Though I had known my friend for a number of years, it didn't dawn on me that many of the things that made him a great salesman were also personality traits that would become a big problem as the business grew.  Salesmen are always selling.  And they sell everyone all the time.  That trait can be a huge boon when you are closing funding and getting initial customers on board.  But salesmen also don't like to say "no", and he didn't want to hear, engage or convey bad news.  When it became clear that our initial assumptions about the market weren't correct, my partners and I split on how to handle it, what to divulge and whether to pivot to something different.  It became clear to me that this was a fundamental difference between us that couldn't be easily fixed; we approached this issue with different values and wanted different outcomes.  In the end, we broke up in a painful and expensive way.

Partnerships are prone to these kinds of "make or break" moments because you can't possibly know enough about your partner(s) to see how they will deal with situations of extreme stress. Partnership "dating" is usually fairly brief and excludes a lot of deep analysis of family, childhood and other type of values-based issues.  The relationship is actually often pretty superficial, based on education, connections, experience and skills.  One of my friends recently left his start-up because he realized that his two partners -- whom he thought he knew -- didn't want to work as hard as he did, and weren't as committed to the process of becoming a top performer as he was.  Even after 18 months of working together daily, the realization came as a shock to him, and led to an unfortunate and unpleasant dissolution of their partnership.

So what can be done to avoid this kind of failure?  Two simple steps to consider are:

The first is to engage in a thorough "pre-partnership" planning process.  This can either be self-facilitated or done with the help of an outside consultant or coach.  The process involves exploring and understanding each other's core beliefs, values and goals.  At the minimum it includes discussing the following questions:

  1. What does success look like? i.e. what is the goal of the business?  To build something big or to gain a quick exit?
  2. How much financial runway do each of us have?
  3. What specific roles will each play in the business and are we willing to put it in writing?
  4. What does "work-life" balance mean to each of us?

The answers to these questions can go a long way in determining whether vision and values will get in the way of the partnership working well -- at least in the beginning.  Putting these answers in writing and revisiting them regularly will also help to keep things in sync.

The second is to "try before you buy".  Most entrepreneurs rush to incorporate before they really have to, thinking the equity is easiest to secure in the beginning.  But often this cements in place a partnership too early, before the founders really know each other.  My suggestion is to establish a broad understanding of the equity split and put it on paper -- an agreement that can be signed by each partner -- that can serve as a placeholder while the team works together to get started. Take some time to develop the product, take meetings with potential investors, iterate on the concept, design and business model.  Put the team through its paces.  If the business seems like a go and you actually have a lead on financing, pull the trigger on incorporation.  But until then, you have a chance to test the waters on how well you really work together.

And note: A colleague of mine asked me whether such an "equity-split" agreement before incorporation would be "legally binding" or not.  

My answer to him was: who cares?  

If you get to the point where you are arguing about whether the signatures are legal or the commitment you've made to each other will withstand a courtroom, you've already answered the question of whether you should be in business together or not.  

You shouldn't.