Apr 142010

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II


“So what are we going to talk about this time?” The question had a bit of an edge. I could tell that she was apprehensive about the focus of the next hour. Our last session, a week past, had highlighted a basic problem in her approach to investing. When, as a CEO, she had to deal with investors it seemed very natural to her that they would insist on clear performance metrics that defined both compensation and ownership. But, now that she was on the other side of the discussion, her response had been to go softly on the team she had invested in. The results had been unsatisfactory. A team without clear metrics is like a gaggle wandering through a deep forest without a compass. Its only a matter of time before the bears get hungry.

We had exchanged about a dozen e-mails over that week; most of which focused on roles and how they were defined. I had suggested a couple of articles I penned some years back. To ‘E’ or to ‘O’? and OK … its ‘O’ Now What? focused on the need for a CEO to understand the difference between their role and that of a chief Operating Officer and how this need increases as the company grows. As you may have gathered from prior parts of this series, I like to begin a sensitive process on familiar ground if at all possible. So that is where we began.

The core of the challenge was in not only understanding but actuating the difference between the role a CEO plays and that that an investor should play in an emerging company. But our starting point was the familiar ground she had already successfully traversed. We talked about her struggle to turn her role from chief of everything to Chief Executive Officer. The conversation was nostalgic an, I had helped her through the process, we had many stories to retell.

As we relaxed with the story telling, I noticed that she would occasionally stop talking or listening – turning inward and tuning in to an inner dialogue. I never interfere with this during coaching sessions. It isn’t what is said or not said that is important – it is what is thought that really matters. After about an hour she looked over and smiled. “You are one crafty SOB Chief.” I tried my best to look hurt and exclaimed “Moi“? We both laughed.

“OK, you’ve lead me to this place. I admit that I had difficulty with the transition from chief of everything to CEO. And I admit that I had a big problem in applying the same performance metrics to my partners and employees that I did to myself. So, where does that lead us?”

“It leads you back to a time and place where you had to substantially reinvent yourself,” I observed. “Remember the Battle at the Cottage Gate?”

“Oh do I”, she replied. “I almost lost my company in that battle. The new blood wanted to professionalize the company and take it to the next level while the old team was happy the way things were. I was caught in the middle. I remember the steely look in your eyes as you told me that it was time; I had to decide to either follow the change or oppose it. It was one of the toughest times. I really loved the old team and the small village feeling of working with them. But I knew that you were right when you told me that ‘the people who got you to where you are are not the ones who will get you to where you are going’. I lost a lot of sleep over that decision and I am grateful for your help.”

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