“We don’t chew gum in first grade!”

Harold Ramis passed away this week. Mike Landman forwarded me this great story that Ramis shared years ago:

I’ve told this story to my shrink many times, which says it all. It’s 1950, I’m 6 years old, and it’s the first day of first grade. I am chewing bubble gum at morning recess, and I go back into class chomping away. The teacher—a stern woman, exactly what you’d imagine for that era—looks at me and asks, “What’s in your mouth?” I say, “Gum!” She growls, “We don’t chew gum in first grade! Go back to kindergarten until you’re ready to be a first-grader!” She opens the door, I step out into the hall, and she slams the door behind me.

My first thought was, Injustice! I was actually a good boy. Yet there I was, standing in the hallway all alone. I didn’t even remember where kindergarten was, because the summer had gone by. Even if I could’ve found it, I thought, I can’t walk into a strange room and say, “I’m not ready for first grade. Can I stay in kindergarten?” It was just too terrifying. So I left.

I lived two blocks from school. As I was walking, I was thinking, Well, I thought school was going to last a little longer than one day. I thought maybe there might be some college in there. But even then, I knew I’d rather give it all up than go back into that classroom. I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t upset. It was just a decision: If school was that crazy, if people were that cruel and intolerant, I didn’t belong there.

When I got home, my mother called the school. Apparently, there had been a mad search to find me. The teacher had stepped out into the hall after a few minutes to see if I was sufficiently humiliated, and I wasn’t there. I don’t remember having any further trouble from that woman, or any other teacher. My mother was pretty tough.

That experience made me suspicious of any kind of institutional authority, and that view has never changed. It made me identify with outlaws (even though I never really acted like one). Being from Chicago didn’t help with authority issues. The great history of labor unions and anarchy are all tied up with Chicago, and I was more sympathetic to that history because I always felt like one of the outsiders.

Then I started college in ’62, when the fun began: the free-speech movement, the civil-rights movement, the antiwar movement. It was us against institutional America. It wasn’t new for me—I’d always had that attitude. I’d felt countercultural and alienated long before the Summer of Love.

But an interesting thing happened in those ­college years. I realized that my first-grade experience accelerated a major aspect of maturity: the ­capacity to embrace ambiguity. I tell my kids about this, because I think the earlier kids can wrap their brains around that, the better. Things were allegedly black-and-white in the ’60s, but even then I was aware that not everyone with long hair was a good guy, and not everyone on the other side was bad.

From there, many other long-entrenched lies became clearer. I mean, kids are lied to from day one just so they’ll feel safe in the world. We tell them our government knows what it’s doing, that all policemen are good, that priests and ministers are divine and above moral reproach. One of my favorite history books, Lies My Teacher Told Me, looks at high school history texts and the distortions they contain. I live with the assumption that nothing is true just because the government or the media or your teacher says it is. Today, we face problems with no solutions, but you’ll never hear that from a politician. I wish someone would stand up and say, “There will always be poor people, disease, and injustice. We will always be at war with somebody, probably for good reason.” I’d vote for that guy.

Finally, the gum episode gave me a jump on taking responsibility. I see life as a series of moral, ethical, and creative choices, and I started making those quite early. Did that lead me to become a director? Maybe. Decision-making created an aura of leadership that has rewarded me for a long time.

So maybe an intensely negative experience evolved into a positive. I’ve become a history buff over the years, but sometimes the most interesting history to learn from is your own. Even more important, you want your kids to learn from it and—if he’s not tired of hearing about it—your shrink.

“How might we…”

Here’s a little change that can have a big impact. Try it. It works.

You will literally never hear him say, “I can’t.” He uses more constructive versions of that sentiment that emphasize the possible, such as “I could if I…”

…IDEO’s favorite antidote to negative speech patterns is the phrase “How might we…?” It was introduced to us by Charles Warren, now salesforce.com’s senior vice president of product design, as an op­timistic way of seeking out new possibilities in the world….In three disarmingly simple words, it captures much of our perspective on creative groups. The “how” suggests that improvement is always possible. The only question remain­ing is how we will find success. The word “might” temporarily lowers the bar a little. It allows us to consider wild or improbable ideas instead of self-editing from the very beginning, giving us more chance of a breakthrough. And the “we” establishes own­ership of the challenge, making it clear that not only will it be a group effort, but it will be our group.

My EOx talk on empowerment, trust, and freedom in the workplace

EOx is a quarterly event put on by the Atlanta chapter of Entrepreneurs Organization. They invite entrepreneurs to give a brief talk on “entrepreneurial ideas worth sharing.”

Outside of Forum, EOx is my favorite EO event, and I was honored to have the opportunity to speak to this crowd. Joining me at the podium that night were Robert Dreesch, Benjamin Rudolph, and Reid Smith-Vaniz of Reliant Technology (one of my forum mates). Last quarter, two other forum mates shared their stories: CBQ of Big Nerd Ranch and Sean Cook of ShopVisible. Set aside an hour, and listen to what they have to say.

For my talk, I decided to share the short version of how our company switched from a rather conventional organizational path to the path we’re on today. To pack it into eight minutes, I left out a ton of stuff, but I tried to hit all the high points. Let me know what you think!

Speakeasy deserves some special thanks. They are one of EO’s sponsors and helped all the presenters (me especially) avoid looking and sounding like complete fools. ATV hosted us, and Friendly Human aced the video production.

Think Local: Yeoman Entrepreneurs & The Leaders They Lean On

Branson, Jobs, Pink, Hsieh, Collins, Moore, Lencione, Maslow, Chouinard. I learn a lot from these titans of industry and philosophers of organizational behavior. They inspire me to set my sights on high mountain peaks, and I’m grateful for their willingness to share their stories and insights in books, blogs, articles, interviews, and social media.

But the entrepreneurs and leaders who help me most – the people who take the time to think about my situation, who know my disposition, and who share their own relevant experiences to help me move farther, faster, higher, and stronger – are a close network of local folks that you wouldn’t know from Adam. These yeoman entrepreneurs and leaders are actually in my arena, and they are marred by the same dust and sweat and blood as I am.

A few groups that I lean on:

  1. My Entrepreneurs Organization Forum. We get together once a month for a formal meeting, plus some other less formal meetings here and there. My forum mates know pretty much everything about my business, and in helping me to develop, they learn new things about themselves and their businesses as well.
  2. SaaS Day. Every three to six months, I get together with about eight other SaaS entrepreneurs to discuss a handful of issues that relate to our businesses. Before our meeting, we’ll zero in on two or three topics, and then have a formal conversation about them. Topics range from how to handle support requests, to recruiting, to pricing strategy.
  3. ROWE Lunches. I know about a half dozen other Atlanta entrepreneurs who are building empowered work environments. Every so often, we’ll get together for a casual lunch in which we share the challenges we face and the manner in which we overcome them.

Meetups offer similar opportunities, but there’s a lot to be said for the familiarity and candor that happens in a small, selective, tight-knit talented group of people.

Forums and roundtables aren’t just for business owners. Some of the members of our team have recently started building their own close networks of accomplished peers: Our marketers created a marketing roundtable with a handful of other B2B marketing leaders, and our head of sales is constantly reaching out to other heads of sales to see how they’re building their operations and share the lessons he’s learned along the way.

Learning from others’ experiences is one of my favorite things about entrepreneurship (and life!), and I’m grateful to all the wonderful people who are willing to share their stories and counsel. Who are the people you lean on to help you develop personally and professionally?

“What do you think we should do?”

Years ago, I used to work with my oldest brother. He was the general manger of our real estate development company, and I was our project manager. We no longer work together on a daily basis, but we’re still partners in a couple of ventures. I learned a lot about leadership while working with him, and still do to this day.

One of my earliest lessons came when I brought my brother a problem that I was struggling with, seeking his input on what we should do. I can’t remember what the problem was, but I clearly remember his answer. He said,

Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions.

He was essentially asking me to come to him with a solution already in mind for whatever problem it was that we faced. He would gladly offer input on my proposed course of action, but to come to him before formulating anything was lazy. He was right!

Saul Bellow put it a little more pessimistically when he wrote,

When we ask for advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.

I was reminded of both my brother’s and Bellow’s sayings when I overheard a member of our leadership team, in response to a request for direction, asking,

What do you think we should do?

What a wonderful question! It carries all the intent of the “Bring me solutions” directive, with none of the pessimism of Bellow’s accomplice theory, and with all the optimistic empowerment that I like to see in our company culture.

On a related note, here’s a great story about empowering leadership and empowered heroes.

Courage vs Risk Tolerance

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I recently received a survey from Entrepreneurs Organization, asking me to indicate my level of agreement (from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree) with a number of statements about courage in business:

Courage is taking meaningful action deliberately after careful consideration of the risk involved.

Courage involves taking an action that is for the greater good, despite short-term adverse consequences.

Courage is the ability to seize opportunities, even when fearful of the future.

None of these statements quite nailed it for me. To me, courage is the strength one needs to make a moral decision in the face of adversity. I tell my children that courage is doing the right thing even when it scares you.

Investing in new products or services is risky, but not courageous. Expanding a sales and marketing team is risky but not courageous. Modifying pricing that seems to work just fine as-is is risky but not courageous. In business, we do lots of things to increase the prospect for greater future gain by sacrificing the certainty of significant near term stability. This is the essence of risk.

Courageous business actions include things that a leader deems to be the morally right thing to do, but that could jeopardize near- or long-term profits. Some actions that strike me as courageous:

  • Speaking openly about your values in the hopes of positively influencing your customers and employees, despite the risk of alienating those who don’t agree with you.
  • Trusting employees to do the right thing, knowing that that means some will occasionally abuse that trust or make mistakes.
  • Telling your employees, when you really need them to focus on executing, that you only have a few months of cash left.
  • Refusing to work with a customer or partner that could bring you game-changing income but requires that you compromise your values.

What are some of the most courageous business actions that you’ve come across?

Some entrepreneurship studies I’d like to read

I have searched for these sorts of studies and been unable to find anything. If anyone knows anyone who might help me uncover these answers, please let me know:

1) Is there a correlation between starting your career with a large business vs a small business and ultimately going on to start your own business?

2) Are people who start their own companies after working at small businesses more or less likely to achieve success than those who start their own companies after working at large businesses?

3) Are software companies started by software developers more likely to be in business in ten years than those started by non-technical founders?

4) Are companies started by MBAs more likely to be in business after ten years than those started by non-MBAs?

5) Are companies started by 18 year olds more likely to be in business after ten years than those started by 50 year olds?