“Hi, my name is Julia, and I used to be a Grey’s Anatomy fan.”
I stopped watching the show sometime after season 4 or 5, but there was a scene in an early episode that has stuck with me ever since (and if someone can find the clip, I’ll buy them a fine dinner!). One of the female characters – Yang or Grey, I think – was feeling the classic pressure of needing to do more to succeed than just be a surgeon. She was stepping out of her comfort zone because she thought that’s what she needed to do to excel in her career. In this case, she was vying for an administrative type of role that required lots of paperwork, scheduling and managing staff – all non-surgical skills. While she was learning new things and stretching herself, she was not loving or doing well at this new type of work. In the memorable clip, one of this woman’s mentors lays it on the line with her and tells her to stop trying to be something she’s not or do something she doesn’t love and to just “be excellent”.
I often reflect on this scene when I coach leaders of early stage growth companies who are striving to grow professionally. Sometimes it’s a salesperson who has become a CEO or a programmer who is now a VP of Engineering. Often, when one starts a new company, they are still doing their day job (sales, programming, market analysis…) not just because there’s no one else but them to do it, but because it’s their passion and the reason they started their business to begin with. The catch 22 of a successful startup can be that the job you loved and got you this far is a job you no longer have time to do. You are meeting with investors, managing people, closing deals, looking for space or just paying the bills. In many cases, there’s great satisfaction in learning how to run a company and domain experts become great leaders across and outside of their organizations. They are being excellent! Sometimes, however, they are being anything but excellent. They are poor people managers or suck at managing investors and they find themselves in a role that makes them miserable. This can have a negative impact on everything from the happiness of their customers, employees and the overall bottom line to their personal self-worth and esteem.
I have taken pleasure in seeing some great founding CEOs and CTOs step down from their roles early into their company’s success to go back to their true passion. Whether it was programming, a business development or sales role, they chose to be excellent so that they can make an impact on their company and found someone with the right skills and experience to do the job they did not want or were good at doing. So, when I am advising leaders in early stage growth companies about scaling their organization, I walk them through an exercise that forecasts what their company might look like in 12, 18 and/or 24 months. Then, I ask them a series of questions that include some of the following:
- Do you feel prepared to manage an organization at that size?
- What tools do you think you are missing in your toolbox to be good at that role?
- What daily tasks and responsibilities are you willing or eager to give up?
- What daily tasks and responsibilities are you loathe to give up?
- What criteria will you use to know when you need to delegate something to a new or existing team member?
- What criteria will you use to decide if you are still happy in your role?
Even with the best planning, most leaders have no idea what their companies will look or feel like at scale, never mind how they will feel about their own roles. However, being self aware and having some ideas in mind of what one will do at that juncture can be vital to their success. Lining up advisors and/or coaches who can help add those tools to your toolbox or to find the right people to delegate to, or perhaps hand the reins to, can be critical to the overall success of the company.
A good leader/founder is not a failure for admitting they suck at their job or that they can’t do it all. The best leaders are those who acknowledge what needs to be done and by whom and they make it happen. They know they need to just be excellent.
Have you stepped down from a leadership role so you can be excellent or know someone who has? Please share your story in the comments!
Author’s note: After posting, I realized I should have called out that this mindset is applicable for ANY role. If you’re a great programmer, be an excellent programmer. If you’re a great designer, be an excellent designer, etc…