Help! Do you have the best external team members?

My morning email from Talkwalker Alerts arrived predictably at 7AM. It had the normal daily information that is either not very relevant or of minimal importance for my day. I use this tool to help me monitor our company name, my name, my colleagues’ names, and other key words as they appear on the internet.

This morning was different. There was a “hit” on our key phrase, “From Founder To CEO.” It’s not often that happens so it caught my attention. I hurriedly clicked on the link that would tell me how the phrase was being used.

My heart sank.

A major university (one you would know) had either unwittingly or intentionally used “From Founder To CEO” in the title of an e-book they were using to collect names and email addresses for some purpose that was unknown to me at the time.

We all have a default stress behavior. Mine is fight. But, I know that these situations call for expertise and skills that are beyond mine.

So, I contacted my attorney who specializes in intellectual property issues.

“Marty, in your professional opinion, are they infringing upon on our trademark,” I asked him with nervous energy in my voice.

Marty took his time to collect his thoughts first. He reviewed the details, asked me to send him some additional information, and re-examined our trademark from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

He came to the same conclusion that I had. This university was indeed infringing upon all the hard work, investment dollars, and creativity my team has created over the past three years.

Hiring External Resources

Finding and recruiting the best resources for our startups or scale-ups is a key responsibility for Founders.

Like many of you, I take this responsibility seriously. So, a few years back we researched a law firm that could serve our varied needs and meet future challenges like our current intellectual property issue. It’s a key relationship that many put off until they actually have a need. That would be a mistake. We spend so much time hiring the best people for our full-time team, but we often don’t put in the same level of rigor into hiring members of our team that provide the help we need on an intermittent basis.

Hiring an outside resource, like a legal firm, to augment your team comes down to a few questions:

  1. Do they have the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are not on your current team?
  2. Do they share the same values that you and your co-founder started the company on?
  3. Will they fit in with your team culture?
  4. Will they represent your company with honor and integrity when interacting with external organizations and people?
  5. Will they be fair with their compensation request for their services?
  6. Will they fight for you and your company when it is needed?
  7. Will they advise you to take an alternate route even when your passion, energy, and emotions overtake you in the moment?
  8. Will they admit when your situation calls for a different person, advisor, or organization?
  9. Will they help you think through the situation in ways your team members can’t?
  10. Will they consider the long-term implications and short-term factors?

These were the questions I asked myself when we decided to work with Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur in Cincinnati, Ohio. In turns out, it was a great choice.

Back to the story

Marty Miller, our IP attorney at Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur, skillfully brought me down to reality in a supportive and encouraging way.

His first recommendation was to simply contact the general counsel office at this major university and call the problem to their attention. He was guided by the assumption that the school may not have known about their infringement. I thought that was fair and reasonable.

When the school came back and said they disagreed and would not change the title of their e-book, I was enraged. We are a small (but growing) business and we have tried hard to serve you, Founding CEOs around the world, with the best content and services we can to help you grow as a leader as you grow your business. We don’t have the resources that this BIG university does.

Once again, the choice of Marty was a good one. He suggested we send them a more detailed case about their infringement.

Being very candid, I wanted to do much more. I could not believe that this prestigious university would be so callous and dismissive.

Marty’s second, more detailed, strong, and assertive letter now caught their attention. Through the legalese of their response, they basically said they still disagreed with our infringement premise, but that they would change their e-book title.

That was all we were asking for. Mission accomplished, Marty.

Even though it cost us a few thousand dollars to protect our intellectual property and fight this well-known university, my team and I believe it was money well spent.

The lessons

One of our many responsibilities as a Founder is to hire the best team imaginable. Hire the best team you can so that you can work on the things that only the Founder & CEO can do. One of those things that only the Founder & CEO can do is to ensure your company and your people are protected.

It’s also important to fully use the outside team resources you partner with. Ask them lots of questions. Role play. Challenge their assumptions and have them challenge your assumptions.

If I had decided to take this university to task via social media, send a flaming letter to the president of the university, or generally erupt with indignation in other ways, it would have most likely disrupted our ongoing mission to serve you. Marty gently guided me through all this as I also told him…”I won’t back down.” He heard me loud and clear.

But, prudence and diligence were called for in this situation. And, I was happy we put the time in to find an attorney who understands these two words, understands me, understands our company’s mission, and respects my team.

Thanks Marty!

Who is your Marty?

How much time to you put in finding the right external team members to support your success?

200 Founder Interviews: Insights After Recording

200 episodes of the “From Founder To CEO” podcast. It is hard to believe.

I have learned so much from the Founders who have shared their stories and their personal triumphs over the very real struggles of getting a new business off the ground.

I’ll be writing more about these struggles in the near future. But, for now, I wanted to share with you three things I learned AFTER we recorded many of our interviews.

1 – MORTGAGES, BABIES, AND CARS, OH MY! – Many of the founders on our podcast seem to become even more “real” with their feelings after I press the stop button on my digital recorder. They seem relieved that the interview is over and begin to chat me up even more. It’s not often they get to speak with someone who understands their challenges and advocates for them.

So, what do they talk about? One recently said he felt the weight of leadership responsibility when one of his employees recently signed for a home mortgage. Another one told me she was scared because a co-founder was having a baby and “now the company really needs to be successful.” Yet another one lamented that several direct reports just bought new cars. “That’s risky considering our cash flow,” he shared with a concerned look on his face.

Fear of “things becoming real” tops the three things I learned from many Founders. Can you relate?

2 – IT’S LONELY – I’m a naturally enthusiastic person, as you may have noticed. I tend to get excited about Founders and their successes. It’s interesting to see how many of our podcast guests just don’t want to hang up or stop the Zoom session after we record. They are often lonely, and they tell me this. “Can we keep in touch, Todd,” many of them ask. “Of course” is always my response. The need to connect with other like-minded founders is an important part of your development as a Founder & CEO.

3 – HOW DID I DO? – This is by far the most common question I get asked after we stop recording the interview. It’s a curious question in some respects. I understand they are interested in my perspective since I have recorded many of these interviews.

However, I also think it’s a fair assessment that many Founders don’t receive much feedback. So, we often talk more about their struggles and some ideas about how to overcome them. Founders have unique problems that many other leaders just don’t experience. You need feedback.

Seek feedback from trusted sources. You deserve it. It’s important to you and your company’s growth.

What did YOU expect Founders to talk about after we record their interview session?

Just How Self-Aware Are You?

The below quote caught my attention recently because of an interview I did with Matt Fischer, Co-founder & CEO of Curiosity Advertising.

  • “Modeling behavior well for others requires an incredible amount of self-awareness.” Nick Sarillo, CEO of Nick’s Pizza & Pub, page 135, “A Slice of the Pie: How to Build a Big Little Business.”

This quote and Matt’s interview reminded me of how challenging it is to become a truly self-aware leader.

I got my first real glimpse of this when I was teaching audio editing as a student at Hofstra University.

Way back before digital audio editing, we actually used magnetic reel-to-reel audio tape, a white crayon, and tape to edit and splice audio tape. It was indeed a very manual process. And, to me, it seemed pretty straight forward and relatively easy.

So, I took a job teaching other students how to edit audio tape. Amanda (name changed) was having difficulty grasping the process. In my eagerness to help her I showed her again, and again, and again. About 15 minutes into the training session, she pushed back her chair, stood, and yelled at me, “Todd, you, you, you, you, are such a NAZI!”

And, there it was. I hadn’t been called something like that since I was a kid when my long German last name caught people’s attention.

I was stunned by her reaction. Why was she so upset, I thought to myself.

Years later now, I coach Founders and CEOs for a living and I often share this story about how our perceptions of the world and our awareness of ourselves influences our approach to leadership.

You see, I’m fairly certain my “teaching” didn’t sound like “teaching” to Amanda. I got more intense, more incredulous that she could not grasp what I thought was simple, and that was not at all helpful to her. My own lack of self-awareness prevented me from doing what I had intended to do, help and serve.

So, when Matt Fischer came on the FFTC podcast and told his story on the path from Co-founder to CEO, it became even more clear to me just how important self-awareness is to leadership.

Matt candidly talked about an issue he was having with his co-founder. He explained that he initially believed his co-founder was not aligned with the company’s mission and becoming somewhat of a barrier to growth. After much introspection and outside help, Matt came to realize that the problem was not with his co-founder, but with him.

I am not so sure I often hear Founders & CEOs so publicly sharing such self-awareness. (you can listen to his interview here.)

How self-aware are you? Need some help figuring that out?

There are lots of things you can do to get help with this.

  • Have an external consultant conduct a 360-degree feedback evaluation
  • Complete an assessment tool like the Birkman
  • Ask a trusted person to watch you in a meeting and provide feedback
  • Ask a friend or family member to describe you when you are at your best and describe you when you are at your worst

As you think about this, it might be helpful to remember this quote:

  • “By far the most difficult skill I learned as CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology.” — Ben Horowitz, Former CEO & Co-Founder, Opsware, Inc. Author of: “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.”

A Bad Hire Can Devastate A Startup

Sam just needed to hire someone, he told himself. He was feeling overwhelmed. The business was picking up speed faster than he could handle it. He yearned for more simplicity and at the same time, courted complexity.

An operations leader that could run the day-to-day of his growing startup would mean freedom. Freedom to focus his energies on the things only the CEO could do. Managing the investors. Interacting with customers. Thinking. Planning. And, getting his team focused.

The problem was that Sam was somewhat haphazard with the way he went about looking for an operations person. He sent an email to his network. He called a few friends. And, magically two candidates appeared.

He quickly scheduled coffee meetings with them and found himself doing more selling rather than interviewing.

Brad seemed perfect. He didn’t have the exact experience Sam was looking for, but his excitement and enthusiasm more than made up for that…he thought.

Although it was hard to compare the two candidates because Sam didn’t really ask the same questions, he offered Brad the job.

Brad started the next day.

Everything seemed great until a week later Brad seemed overwhelmed and needed a lot of Sam’s time and attention.

“No one is listening to me, “ Brad complained.

Suddenly a line of team members formed a regular queue outside Sam’s door.

It was unanimous, Brad just didn’t know how to lead, let alone manage.

Months later Sam realized he made a terrible mistake and finally fired Brad. It was a mistake that had about a 6 month impact on the morale and trust of Sam’s team. And, that poor decision would reverberate many months later.

Although I made this particular story up, it is an amalgamation of the stories I have heard time and again.

It’s the same story that Adam Robinson warned against in a recent interview I had with him on the podcast.

He shared a few key hiring concepts that you may want to pay attention to:

  • Hiring is sales.
  • Hiring is a process.
  • Hiring takes time and patience.
  • Hiring requires understanding the role.
  • You should ask each candidate the same questions.
  • A bad hire can have a devastating effect on a small and growing company.

Listen to the full interview here and you’ll see what I mean. Adam’s insights are invaluable.

And, grab a copy of his book, “The Best Team Wins.”

What hiring mistakes have you made?