In light of the recent CEO announcement for Contegix, I decided it was to resurrect this draft blog post. The post is surprisingly not about Leadville, ultramarathons, or even running despite the question. It is about knowing oneself and what one wants for a life well prioritized and planned.
Of all the questions around the Contegix equity investment, the most common was around why I stepped away as CEO of Contegix. It was asked by my team when we took the investment and has been asked by numerous friends and entrepreneurs since then.
It was asked in straightforward ways, “Hey, so why aren’t you CEO anymore?”
It was asked with innocence and timidness, “Everything good, man?”
It was asked with declarations and poor assumptions, “Dude, what the f* happened?”
Before getting to how I made this decision, it’s important to understand the context and a conversation with my mentor that happened almost two decades ago.
The conversation with my mentor about entrepreneurs started innocently and light-hearted. At this point in my life, I knew my path was one of entrepreneurship. I did not know precisely what that meant or how it would play out. Craig and I were about to start what eventually became Contegix after a few iterations. I had not yet learned a fundamental truth. The path of entrepreneurship is inevitably a path of risk and leadership.
I was yet again confronted with a question for an answer in response to mine. I had asked about entrepreneurs and their impact. I wanted to know how to be an entrepreneur that built a great company by facilitating and helping build incredible talent, even if the company ended up being an exporter of talent. Sensing the requirement of time to accomplish this truly, he pivoted to the core.
He repeated the question as I stared at him, “Do you know why Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison are so well known?”
I vaguely remember giving some remotely intelligent answer about how they had impacted the world and their stakeholders.
He repeated the question a third time, and this time he included an answer.
“Do you know why Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison are so well known? It is because their respective 100 miles is much longer than almost anyone else’s. Others have a 100 mile distance that sets up the next phase.”
He went on to explain what he meant by the cryptic statement.
The Mississippi River was filled with steamboat traffic not too long ago. While the traffic may have faded some, rivers remain vital to our country and economy. These boats have been and continue to be the heart of commerce and military transportation. Traversing these waterway has never been easy though. Rivers are like living, breathing organisms. Even today, the risk is inevitable and often unexpected because change is constant.
At this historic time, vessels lacked the current protections of GPS, sonar, and radar that help detect the changes in currents, debris, sandbanks, and many other factors. They lacked radio to communicate with other water-faring vessels about real-time changes in the river or to send a request for help. It was dangerous for the men who worked on these boats. It still is in many ways.
In lieu of the modern equipment, there were experts, specifically men who knew the most treacherous and dangerous sections of the river. These experts traveled up and down the river. Each would often focus on a specific segment, say 100 miles (or so). They would learn, re-learn, and memorize every change in the river with brain cells filled with the minute details.
Captains were generalists with a mission to traverse the entirety of the river. These men were specialists whose livelihood was based upon knowing a specific segment. No one knew it better, except for maybe another expert with more tenure or proficiency.
The captain, a man (unfortunately, it was almost always a male) appointed such by employment, tenure, rank, or direct ownership, is the last line of responsibility and authority for the boat during its voyage. When a ship would approach a treacherous or unknown section, the captain had a decision whether to hire the specialist who knew the next 100 miles better than he did or attempt the passage under his command. If the decision were made to hire one, the captain would hand over control of the boat and its precious cargo of souls and merchandise to the designated captain. The ship was his to command and his to relinquish when the 100 miles was over. He was the designated captain for that 100 miles.
Up and down the river, each designated captain went being hired and navigating the precarious waterways he knew. He stayed in the boundaries of those 100 miles.
Almost two decades later, I have yet to verify if the history is accurate. It perhaps may only be an analogy for which I could relate growing up in Saint Louis and living alongside the majestic Mississippi. Yet, I told this story to a friend a year ago who remarked he saw this in action on a European riverboat cruise in 2017.
Regardless, the insight for me was immediate. Jobs, Ellison, and many others since this conversation are known because they have a long 100 miles. They have had a long period to make an impact on their stakeholders and communities. They have gone from founders to tech icons, and they have evolved along the way. In the case of Jobs, it could be said that he had 2 sections at Apple and, perhaps, learned the second course during his time away from Apple navigating other waters. The cost of this is considerable sacrifices and prioritization of the essential mission.
This conversation left a mental mark with me that I carry to this day and have relied upon numerous times, including our transaction.
Craig and I decided to take an investment for numerous reasons. The most significant was our core value of Rapid Accelerated Growth. It was odd that most people never read the description of this core value. The growth was not in reference to the financials – the top or bottom line. It was in reference to our stakeholders, especially our talent, our team, and customers. We fundamentally believe that if these grow, the growth of the financials was a drag-along effect. It was a core reason we implemented the 20% pre-tax profit sharing.
We knew that the competitive landscape was shifting for both cloud and managed cloud services. An investment was the fastest path to be either fail or be prepared for the market shifts. It was contingent upon the right equity partner. We found that in Strattam Capital and its team. It was a relationship developed over years and one built on honest, regular discussions around expectations. These still continue to this day.
I flashbacked to the mentor conversation a few weeks ahead of completing the Contegix transaction in 2016. I realized that my 100 miles was coming to an end as CEO of Contegix if we went through with the transaction. I had navigated Contegix from an idea with the first servers in my basement. The transaction would mean Contegix would now by the combination of three companies and cultures.
Contegix’s CEO needed to be an expert at navigating the delicate waters of integrating these companies and their respective cultures. The CEO would need to spend more time with customers in this competitive landscape and time with our private equity partner.
I would need to expand my 100 miles if I wanted this journey whether through this transaction or another method. As the then-current CEO, my responsibility was to ensure the best talent for the journey ahead.
In the midst of this, I also realized there was a new role for me. I may have been relinquishing the role of captain. I was still on the boat and would continue the role I loved most – being the voice of our customer on the Board and the technology liaison between the business and the Board. For service companies, there should always be someone on the Board who loves the customer first and foremost (rather than the service, product, sales cycle, or anything else). For the executive team, that role is often the CEO.
As the new captain takes the next 100 miles, I relish in the fact that any change does not diminish the work and effort done by predecessors. These were absolutely foundational to get to this point. One cannot hire the designated captain if the boat fails to make it to the rendezvous point.
As a passenger on the boat, I appreciate that more than most.
A few weeks ago, I blogged about why I think people should spend less time on email. I discussed some reasons why one could be spending too much time on email. I confessed my challenges with this at one point in my history. For me, it was about accomplishing something to demonstrate value and self-worth and needing breaks when dealing with complex challenges. I now check my emails less than five times per day.
Perhaps the reasons why one excessively clings to email did not resonate. Perhaps a belief that immediate responses are critical when dealing with clients and employees, and perhaps that belief trumps the causes. Perhaps one did not finish reading the post due to an audible ding indicating the arrival of a new email. I heard similar feedback when I gave this advice to the aforementioned panel.
Regardless of the reasons why one is always on email, there are numerous reasons to change. The financial and productivity reasons should be enough. Yet, it is not the most prominent reason to change.
It can destroy relationships. Period. I am not talking about reading email while at dinner with loved ones. I am talking about the relationships with the people on the other side of the email.
It comes down to reality, expectations, and commitments.
Imagine someone wants to send a package via FedEx. The package is not needed until Christmas which is more than two weeks away. She steps into a FedEx store and decides to send it via FedEx Ground. The package should get there within four days which is more than enough time.
After leaving the store, the agent and the entirety of the FedEx team size up the situation. They unanimously decide to send the package FedEx SameDay after seeing the holiday wrapping paper. FedEx never notifies the customer of the priority change. The package is getting there today, and they are not charging the customer for this upgraded delivery. The customer is ecstatic when she receives a call saying her package arrived the same day!
This happens repeatedly for every package the customer ships with FedEx. It continues through the holidays and for weeks afterward. The customer always chooses FedEx Ground. She always pays the price of FedEx Ground. Yet, packages are repeatedly delivered FedEx SameDay.
The customer eventually discovers this happening, and she is ecstatic. It is a deal for the customer, and FedEx never waivers or complains.
It’s reasonable to believe the customer would no longer select the truly needed priority when sending a package. FedEx never committed to anything other than four-day delivery. Regardless, it has always delivered same day. The customer has been trained to expect SameDay service.
That is the case until the one time FedEx a package must get there tomorrow. The customer now has a decision. Should she send it next day or ship it ground?
If she choses next day, she is now paying additional for the same service that has always been delivered at no extra cost. She may feel this is outrageous because she knows FedEx can do it for the same price as four-day. She may have the opposite reaction and feel this is acceptable as an insurance policy. Yet, I question if this is the feeling one wants a customer to have.
She may consider it financially foolish since packages have always arrived the same day. FedEx has never let her down – SameDay, every day. So, she ships it ground and takes the risk. FedEx is not aware of the imbalanced expectation or the risk. If the package doesn’t arrive on time, the customer is upset and probably realizes she is at fault. It still negatively impacts the relationship because her expectations have not been met.
How did the situation get here? It was a relationship created with initial good intentions by the vendor. It devolved. The misalignment between services purchased and services delivered has created a relationship no longer based on honest expectations. That’s where the problem crept in and began to eat away at the core of the relationship.
As a format, email does not innately convey a priority or expected reply time. It does not even contain a requirement to reply. It needs to be explicitly stated.
If a recipient instantly reads and replied to an email, the tone and expectations are potentially being set for the conversation. When it repeatedly occurs over multiple conversations and is not based on committed priorities and time requirements, the expectations on the relationship between the parties is altered.
People are being trained to expect replies not aligned with committed response times. In customer service, clients are being trained to expect this level of service regardless of the contract or service level agreement. As a leader, teams are being trained this is the expectation of each other and from their leader. This is also the expectation when a customer emails.
Are you training your customers to expect messages read and replies faster than the commitment? Are you training your team that this is the modus operandi for customer emails? For your emails? Are you training your spouse that replies must be instant?
Each day is an Instant Replay
They say what we display is symptomatic of addict behavior
– Eminem “Love Song”
Respect in a relationship is built on met expectations and commitments. Unmet and unreal expectations are critically harmful to relationships. There is no need to create additional ones that will inevitably fail.
Finally, it is potentially insulting. It is about saying that you will set the priority regardless of the sender sending it via a mechanism that implicitly has no real priority. It is about you saying that you are smarter than the sender and will be the one to protect everything by setting this priority and replying immediately.
All of this adds up to being destructive. It can be destructive of your relationships with your team, your customers, your friends, and your family.
A few days ago, I was on a panel for early-stage entrepreneurs. This was for the EO Accelerator program. Each of these entrepreneurs has a business with revenue between $250k and $1MM. Each is wanting to grow their business which inevitably means personal growth.
I love serving EO Accelerator. It is a program near and dear to my heart. I was a member of the program more than a decade ago and became the first Accelerator graduate across the global program. I refer to myself as a product of mentors and peers. That started in Accelerator. Thus, I owe it a lot and more than I could ever give back. It’s a blessing to have the chance to try. Furthermore, the energy from these entrepreneurs is incredible and inspiring.
One of the questions asked was a deep reminder that our language protocols matter. Language protocol often matters more than the content.
When I am mentoring or speaking to a panel, I typically default to experience share. This stems from being in EO (Entrepreneurs Organization) and YPO for over a decade. Both organizations are peer-based and use a language protocol that is focused on sharing experiences. It’s referred to as Gestalt.
Experience sharing is done for a multiple of reasons. Frankly, as a peer-based organization, it should not come as a surprise that peers do not like being told what to do. A bunch of mostly Type-A personalities telling each other what to do and how to solve their problems sounds horrible and hostile. Yet, let’s look at the psychology of this.
When a person is corrected or specifically told to do something, it activates the reptilian brain. This is especially the case when someone has been vulnerable and transparent. The reptilian brain takes a defensive stance for protection. In addition, the left cortex begins to tenaciously cling to what it believes to be true and correct regardless if it is.
To further muddle our innate reactions, we look at our own personal actions, challenges, and problems as contextual. Yet, we often look at other’s as representing (a flaw in) character. Sharing experiences rather than giving advice helps stop the judgment of the person’s character. No one wants to be vulnerable to peers and share a challenge or opportunity to then be judged.
Even if one person can withstand that, would anyone else want to head into that potential firing squad?
In contrast, experience sharing lacks this judgment. It comes with context, actions, and results. Every one hearing it, including the person presenting their challenge, has the potential to learn from each person’s experience share. Each can draw out how it applies to her/him. I have learned more from the experience shares to other’s challenges and problems than perhaps they did. That respects my time and talents.
I love and prefer experience sharing. Yet, it is not an absolute.
The panel was asked the question, “How do you focus on your strategy?” This was a pivotal and probably the best question of the day.
As a panelist, I take the role as a serious obligation. I am deliberate in my content and delivery, including language protocol. I will typically default to Gestalt. It is the rule, not the exception. Yet, I intentionally did not for this question.
Certain questions do not need experience sharing. For example, let’s say an entrepreneur shares her challenge of getting people to return every day. Then, she shares her challenge regarding whether she should give those people compensation, such as a paycheck. I can absolutely state that she should probably pay her people. There is no experience share needed.
These are absolutes. Yes, you should pay your people. Yes, you should pay your taxes. Yes, you should treat people fairly and with respect. No, you should not discriminate based upon gender, religion, sexual preference, hair color, skin color, preference of cats vs. dogs, etc.
(There may be details of these questions, such as what, how, when, etc., that are potentially worthy of an experience share. For example, bi-weekly vs. monthly paychecks?)
My answer to the strategy question was absolute. The answer I gave was “Get off your fucking email.” It was that direct and that absolute. It was intentional. I will detail why this was my answer for most entrepreneurs, especially early stage, in an upcoming blog post.
In the meantime, get off your email.
One thing I love about suburbia is Chick-Fil-A. Thankfully, one recently opened up near our house which has led to a trip 1-2 times per week. We are not the only ones hitting the new addition to the neighborhood. It is slaughtering my predominantly vegetarian diet. This place is always busy… except Sunday (of course).
During the last visit, I noticed something interesting. The manager was not sitting in an office watching the staff from behind glass. He was not at the register directly helping customers and ringing up sales. He was not behind the grill making food. I would like to say that this is a good thing.
So, where was the manager? He was focused on two things – his employees and his customers. He was actively involved in ensuring both of these parties were having a successful experience.
For the customers, he was greeting them, welcoming them to restaurant, and ensuring the experience was a clean and professional one. I watched the presumably highest paid employee empty the trash from bin to dumpster twice in less than 15 minutes. This was not merely a detail. It was important because it helps ensure the customers have a clean place and the remaining staff could also drive this mission behind the registers and grills and on the dining floor.
For the employees, he was not micro-managing. He was checking in repeatedly to see what if anything they needed – from additional change for registers to food for the grills to lemons for the their awesome diet lemonade. He wanted them to succeed at their mission of helping the customer and taking care of them. There were no excuses about rank or politics about position.
The lesson here is that good managers do the same. They pay attention to the employees and customers. They get the right people, give them the right tools, help where necessary, and know when to get the hell out of the way.
After humping it for quite a few years with family and Contegix, it is now time to get back to blogging. It has been too long. I already have a few posts in draft format that will be ready to go over the next few days and weeks.
There will be a few changes. First, the blog at porterhome.com will be mostly focused on the personal side of the topics – family, tech, Contegix, and entrepreneurship. These will be more related to me and my personal experiences. Contegix Thoughts From Insider The Ether Blog will contain Contegix business, our infrastructure, etc. Keep checking it out!
For entrepreneurship, I will be launching STLEntrepreneur.com in the near future. Keep watching there!
And keep following my tweets…
The past few weeks, I have searching for Saint Louis enterpreneurs to attend a happy hour this Thursday. The event is being hosted by EO Accelerator to introduce the program. Accelerator is a great program sponsored by EO and Mercedes-Benz Financial. It is geared for businesses with revenue between $250k and $1m where the entrepreneur is under 35.
If anyone is interested, ping me at your convenience. The event is Thursday at ARAKA in Clayton.