Jan 212011

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

I suspect that many of us do not spend enough time looking in the mirror. I am not advocating narcissism – only suggesting that self-awareness begins with a reflection.

On either side of the portal to the temple at Delphi were two prescriptions. The one – nothing too much – warned against excesses. The other – know thyself – was a precursor of Socrates’ observation that ‘a life un-reflected on, was not worth living’. It’s this second one that I have been thinking about lately.

Some of my coaching engagements bring this later observation into high relief. Some clients seem to have unrealistic visions of reality that clash with the world as it actually is. For instance, I regularly get requests for introductions to sources of funding. Many of the entrepreneurs making such requests have no understanding of the process of getting funded. Many appear to believe that they don’t need to bother with such esoteric knowledge. As a result, they have no ability at all to see the process from the perspective of the investors they want to approach. As one very successful investor once told me, “they take me to be a bank – an unsophisticated one that only needs to know that they need the money.”

So how does this relate to self-knowledge? Well, it has to do with how you see yourself within the context of the wider world. The difficulty comes when entrepreneurs see themselves radically differently than the people they are interacting with. Here are some of the ways this behavior manifests itself.

A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep: This one tends to surface with people who consider themselves entrepreneurs but aren’t really. I was introduced to one who seemed to be a proverbial whirlwind of activity. She was all over the place and involved in a number of start-ups. So peripatetic was she that simply talking to her gave me a headache. As the referral came from a person who I knew and valued as a friend and business associate, I decided to ‘give it a try’ and see if I could figure out some way to be of help. That decision set in motion a series of experiences that all tended to look and feel the same.

I started with the most likely target – a company that was operating in a space that The Federal Circle had some connections in and experience with. I asked her to provide me with a package of information about the company, its team, market and clients – normal diligence. What I received was an email with two short paragraphs of generic babble. This person was wanting me to introduce her to sources of finding when all she had was a primitive website and a couple of amateurish paragraphs. It got amusing (he said with tongue in cheek) as I asked for information on other the companies that she was involved in. The pattern was repeated almost exactly – including the lengths of the paragraphs and some of the working – for each one. I was supposed to risk my reputation and contacts based on this?

The Verbal as Substitute for the Written: A variation of the above comes when the entrepreneur avoids the production of a business plan and tries to substitute an extended elevator speech. Another ‘entrepreneur’ approached me with a request for coaching assistance. He had an ‘idea’ but professed not to be a ‘detail guy’. So he wanted my help to build a team that would launch the company. Our first session did not go well. Sure, the initial elevator speech was polished but, when I asked for more detail he got aggressive then abusive.

“How do you expect me to help you if you aren’t able to clearly describe what you are involved in?” The response was roughly “that’s your problem, not mine.” Self-knowledge is the underpinning of a sophisticated understanding of the world and what is possible within it. The responsibility for clarity rests at the feet of the proposer – not the audience. This basic formulation was beyond this person. A bit of diligence showed me that this was not the first ‘company’ that this person had launched. He had founded two that had failed – both of which were backed by angel investors. I ended up talking to three of his prior teammates who all described him as a troubled person.

Wanting is Not the Same as Having: A third way that this lack of self-knowledge manifests itself in through people who have a strong want but no patience with having. I know one particular person who is very good at the first phases of a start-up and very destructive thereafter. I call him the ‘first date’ specialist. Never more at home than when pitching some new idea, he quickly loses interest as soon as the possibilities begin to turn into probabilities. When I confront him on this behavior, he generally replies “this is the way I am”. But his statement is purely self-justifying and does not extend to a realization of how others view him because of such behavior. He is a pariah and people avoid him.

Know Thyself: None of these behaviors are unavoidable. None have to be limiting the life experience of these people. There is a way forward and out of the dilemma. Let’s go back to the mirror. A good coach – one with lots of life experience and who has met and slaughtered such daemons – is precisely that mirror. My most successful coaching engagements have resulted in substantial personal growth by my clients – and a deepening self-knowledge. Often we celebrate such victories and I get great satisfaction from watching a client avoid destructive behavior and follow their better instincts. It’s easier than you might think – start with a good mirror and pay close attention.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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