“Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of all things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”
Seneca, via Brain Pickings
Some friends and I were recently discussing the CEO job description, with each of us sharing what we do everyday. The CEO role is different from that of a Founder, and I approach my responsibilities as CEO by viewing myself as Steward of the Tree.
Over the years, we have nurtured a tiny seed of a company into a healthy little tree. Our tree helps all sorts of creatures live their lives: it offers shade for customers, fruit for owners, and branches on which employees can build their nests. The leaves that fall during autumn decompose and fertilize the forest floor of our community. Our seeds scatter in the wind, take root elsewhere in the forest, and begin their own journey toward tree-dom.
Our tree is still young, and has plenty more room to grow. My task as Steward of the Tree is to help it fulfill its potential – to grow to maturity so that it’s impact is amplified many times over what it is now.
I can make reckless decisions that stunt its growth or kill it. I might push it to grow at a rate that’s ultimately unhealthy, and would cause its branches to weaken or would jeopardize it’s strength by not giving its roots time enough to dig deeper into the soil. Or I might be negligent or lackadaisical, so that other trees reach up and block our sunshine, and then our little tree will wither.
When I’m being most effective, there’s not really anything that I must do. The tree is just fine without me tending to it for a few days. But there is always something I could be doing: whether it’s pruning a rogue branch, inspecting a fungus, or simply learning about how to help trees be healthier.
If there’s nothing in particular that I need to do on a given day, rather than feeling lost, useless, or guilty about it (which I’ve come to learn is a common feeling among CEOs), I should feel some pride: I have helped a seed grow to a strapping young tree that doesn’t need my immediate attention. If the tree needs my constant tending—if I am fighting back blights or urgently toting buckets of water during dry spells—then perhaps I am tending it in the wrong way. That’s probably a signal that I could be doing a better job as a steward.
Our executive team recently finished The Hard Thing about Hard Things, and we spent a good bit of time on the one of the common themes in the book: the difference between “wartime” and “peacetime” CEOs. In growing our business through four years of a great economic apocalypse, every day certainly felt like battle, and I’m grateful to have shared that difficult journey with some incredibly talented and committed people.
Today, we may not feel so many immediate threats to our existence—we have enough recurring revenue, enough operating income, and enough cash on hand to withstand a great many blows—but insidious threats still loom. We are no longer battling to ensure that our tree survives until tomorrow or next month. Today, we battle to ensure that our tree is thriving years from now. The threats are less obvious and palpable (which makes some aspects of the steward’s job more challenging), but they’re still all around us. We must still combat our greatest enemy: complacency.
A handful of writings and people that have influenced my thinking about the CEO’s job:
The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono
How Andreesen Horowitz evaluates CEOs, Ben Horowitz (this post was also in THTAHT)
What a CEO Does, Fred Wilson
I first came across the “CEO as Steward” analogy from one of our customers, Scott Barr of Southwest Exteriors, an accomplished remodeler in San Antonio.
One of Bezos’s more memorable behind-the-scenes moments came during an off-site retreat, says Risher. “People were saying that groups needed to communicate more. Jeff got up and said, ‘No, communication is terrible!’ ” The pronouncement shocked his managers. But Bezos pursued his idea of a decentralized, disentangled company where small groups can innovate and test their visions independently of everyone else. He came up with the notion of the “two-pizza team”: If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large. That limits a task force to five to seven people, depending on their appetites.
My kids are always starting businesses. They aren’t often successful businesses, but I love their effort and their indomitable spirit.
The lemonade business has been pretty good, but only when they time it right. The front-yard restaurant was surprisingly successful despite them selling only imaginary food. But the rock business! That one was horrible.
Both my kids love rocks. They don’t love rocks so much that they’d be willing to buy one, but their love for rocks is so strong that they believe other people would gladly pay 50¢ for any one of the small stones they’ve pulled from the creek behind our house.
Two winters ago, when the lemonade business wasn’t really a good option, they set up their rock stand and tried selling to passers-by. Whenever anyone would get close, Alex would shout, “Rocks for sale! Get your cool rocks here!”
Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough foot traffic for them to get any real traction, so they decided to take their game on the road. They bagged up the rocks, and started walking around the neighborhood. I tagged along.
A friend of mine recently observed,
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who want peace and those who want justice. I used to be justice-minded. The older I get the more I become focused on peace.
His comment was part of a larger discussion about how to resolve significant differences that inevitably emerge within valued relationships. What do you do when a loved one feels that you have wronged her and you feel wronged by your loved one?
My friend and I weren’t talking about life-threatening situations. Obviously, that’s a whole different story. We were talking about the little arguments that peck away at relationships. They’re questions about money or pride or preference.
When those disagreements come up, what do you do? For my friend, he decides whether it is more important that he be right (justice) or that he have a healthy relationship (peace), and then acts accordingly.
The New York Times revealed that college graduates earn 1.8x that of high school graduates with no college. The author concludes that “15 years or 17 years of education [makes] sense as a universal goal.”
The author doesn’t share absolute average earnings for college graduates and high school graduates, but a little googling suggests that high school grads with no college earn an average of around $35,000. So it appears that people can boost their income to an average of $68,000 by earning a college diploma! That’s a huge difference, and it makes for a compelling argument in favor of going to college, right?
As bold as they are, I think they aren’t pushing that logic far enough. If we really want people to be more prosperous, we should have everyone become an endurance athlete!
Fortune says that people who sign up for triathlons earn an average of $126,000 (which is over 3.6x high school grads). Even better, we should have everyone sign up for the New York City Marathon. Those folks earn an average of $130,000 (a 3.7x premium)!
My point, of course, is that earning a college degree correlates with high monetary earnings, but does not necessarily result in earnings. If correlation was causation, we’d be better off encouraging folks to sign up for triathlons and marathons. Endurance events are much much cheaper, and one can prepare for a marathon in less than half a year.
Someone in here claims that the average income of Ferrari owners is $570,000! That’s over 16x the average for high school grads! Ferraris for everyone!
Question: If you had to hire one of three people, and you knew only one thing about each person – that one had a college degree, one had completed a marathon, and one owned a Ferrari – which would you hire and why?
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.