Fem-nomics? Or Leadership?

I don’t know many women entrepreneurs who haven’t already read Penelope Trunk’s post on women entrepreneurs and how they can’t be successful because… they want to have children. The sexist title alone that TechCrunch put on the original article made it a sure read to all of us women entrepreneurs.

On top of it, it plays to a certain stereotype discussion that was on the TechCrunch Disrupt stage recently. Perhaps this was that panel leader’s way of saying, “AHA, Proof that I was right!”

It would be easy to think this story is about feminine entrepreneurs and economics. But it’s not. It’s an article about leadership skills. You see, I have written a similar post also because I too have recently stepped back from being an entrepreneur as CEO of Rubicon.

By making the issue about wanting / having children, Penelope has taken her extraordinary writing and story-telling skills to become the heroine of the story. Who doesn’t want to root for the parent who is “doing right” by the choice of making sure she takes care of the ones she brought into the world. I hope it makes Penelope feel good about her choice, but I’m going to argue that this story is too one-sided. It leaves out a failure of her management team, her board, and showcases her lack of leadership. Which I will return to in a moment on “lessons for all of us entrepreneurs”.

As you read my original post, you can see how I am clearly dealing with work/family/career trade offs. But what is more enlightening and WAY more representative of the core issue is the post that preceded it by several months. In it, I named my frustration at not being able to scale my firm well and I couldn’t Cross the Rubicon, so to speak. In net, I was saying my firm was systemically designed to fail. I know a lot about systems and so it was really hard to realize that while I could help some really notable companies do BIG saves and marketing-winning moves, to really excel in the marketplace, I couldn’t do it for my own small-millions-dollar firm.

So like Penelope, I’ve made some tough decisions when I was already at a breaking point. But to capture the story at the breaking point is to miss the larger pattern. I don’t know Penelope’s personal story; the only interaction I’ve had with her (besides reading her blog) is an email exchange where her tiredness came through. But let me tell you my story and the lessons I think it holds.
I recently archived the Rubicon files and in doing so recently relived the entire timeline. I realize the story of my failing started in late 2005, I had decided to grow Rubicon beyond my own personal brand and to become an enduring entity. I knew so many companies who failed to deliver on the promises they made; who didn’t know how to be involved with the inflection point turnaround and leave a team ready to own the future. I knew that Rubicon could fill a gap left in the market by the likes of McKinsey and add true value by not creating strategy as slides but creating strategies that worked through collaborative work (the core assets of these processes and methodologies are shared in the book, New How.)
As background: In the services world, one proven organizational model that allows scale is for one party (or more) to be responsible for selling; another to focus on delivery. Without that mix, what happens is that the person selling stops selling to focus on delivery and then goes back to selling only when there’s bandwidth. It leads to a poor flow of revenues over time because of the need to turn the spigot on and off. So back in late 2005, I knew I needed to pick one main area, and find someone who could become my partner in ying/yang flow. I wrote a job description, talked to lots of folks and in the end hiring someone who started at Rubicon January 2006.
Within 6 months, it was abundantly clear that the person I had brought into to handle delivery couldn’t do the role; he could do many other things* but not the core functionality that would let the business scale. So what did I do to this very expensive resource? Did I chastise him for his lack of self-awareness for taking a role there was no way he could do…and boot him to get the right person to scale the business? No. I did not. I settled; i worked around; I justified how this person added something really valuable and letting him go wasn’t right for now. I thought I could really fix it with the next resource. And before you come to his defense, just know this. I KNOW he wasn’t the villain of the story; I was. Or rather, my leadership was. I knew full well what the business needed and what I needed to create a sustainable venture where I didn’t fry my self out. But you know what I did? I ignored what was clearly a best practice (as defined by Maister), and said “we’ll make do” and “it’ll work out”.

“It’ll work out” turned out for me (and often does for others) into many bad choices. When we entrepreneurs load ourselves down with shit work we hate to do, what we’re saying is that we’ll add that to our plates in addition to our normal load of things we want to do. In the end, we’ll do way too much, get fatigued, lose perspective, get worn down and then have to “quit our jobs so we can be with our kids”. By not making the right choice by the firm, I was saying “I’ll fill the gap” myself. I wasn’t leading the firm, I was “doing” the firm. In essence, I was a “doing” entrepreneur saying “I’ll be your duct tape”. Which works fine for a while. Then, if you are “successful” as I turned out to be, my little “duct tape” couldn’t hold strong when it was the plug for a big damn of revenues, delivery and projects. Being a “doing-Entrepreneur” is not enough to scale a firm to success.

So, Lessons:
1. Every business model has some key elements necessary for scale. Know yours. In the case of my last business (services), the selling/delivery tension is well-known and by not solving it, I systemically set up my company to fail over time. Know yours. And solve for it, first. Not later, now.

2. Entrepreneurs: working hard is never enough; our goal to create a sustainable enterprise. Sustainable doesn’t mean “I will work myself into the ground and hope someone can give me a $1M at the end and then they can grow the firm to the next level”. Sustainable is more like the thing that lets Ev Williams hire Dick Costolo at Twitter and then divide roles so the different fronts are well covered. I would bet the Corporate Board at Twitter were thinking about sustainability so they didn’t lose their talent but found a way for a thriving enterprise. Great corporate advisers are looking down the horizon to manage culture, talent and velocity.

3. Personal mastery and leadership is your responsibility. It is knowing that “leaving it all out on the field” doesn’t mean being a spent, worn-out person who is a martyr to the firm. Workout, have personal time, refresh and keep it all in perspective. Work is a part of our lives and an important one. Men, while it’s not talked about, actually want to have relationships with their children, too. Parents all do. Because in those relationships lies a deep love. And love is a fulfilling part of life. I spend a lot of time with some very important, very busy people; I don’t see the VC guys looking frazzled and spent; I see them taking their families skiing and they fit in their early morning run on the trail also. By being the best “doer” for your business, you’re not necessarily being the best “leader” for your business. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the more important role — be the visionary talented leader that creates value in a business. In other words, be a great entrepreneur. Master your own priorities so you can sustain a business well.
This topic is not yet done, and I welcome your thoughts on whether you think this is about “fem-nomics” or what I propose — an issue of leadership.

(And please note I am NOT in any way disparaging the person I worked with from 2006-2010. I loved working with him in so many ways. *Without him, I could never have grown from doing business unit level strategies to doing company level strategies. He complimented me in many ways, and I personally grew because of the way in which we worked. I’ll never regret the time working with him because I also learned and grew and became more of who I am today. It is true that by hiring him and letting him stay, I made a fatal mistake for Rubicon but I’ll apply that lesson in fruitful ways down the road.)

9 Replies

  1. There’s very un-sexy book about entrepreneurship that’s one of the true business classics (in my book): The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber…he makes the distinction between working *on* your business and working *in* your business. That said, we rarely learn this lesson except by experience. (I had read the book, and still busted my head against real life. And survived.) Nilofer, thank you, and best of good fortune to you.

  2. Anne, Yes, Gerber’s book is awesome and I have consumed it several times over. But it did take some personal experience, and coaching to finally learn that I could do self-care as part of being an entrepreneur. Having a background where one is “lazy” if not hauling ass, I couldn’t just chill before. But I’ve come to see the cost more fully of that self-tyranny.

  3. Good for you! “I killed my company to find my life” rings as true as a punch in the nose: there’s a book I’d read!

  4. Your ability to reflect and learn is refreshing and something too often missed in business – regardless of company size or maturity. Life isn’t static. We all must learn to reflect, adjust and adapt to be good leaders, regardless of the scope of our roles. As a CEO this is an even more important quality to embrace. Your comments on sustainability are important as well. What does it mean to grow a business with a sustainable mindset. I wonder if too often the pressure for results is what keeps business in this short-term react and burn cycle rather than a longer-term invest and grow model. Great post Nilofer and thank you for your willingness to be vulnerable, transparent and reflective.

  5. Thanks Susan for your kind comments about the vulnerability, transparency and reflectiveness. I figure if even one other CEO or leader benefits from my failings and experiences, it’s worth putting this out there.

    1. Oh, boy, not sure I can talk about balancing well. My husband will attest to the fact I shouldn’t.

  6. Pingback: Author and entrepreneur Vanessa Fox: In business, “don’t jump in and fix everything.” - Microsoft for Work - Site Home - TechNet Blogs
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