“You’re being myopic, Brett.”
That’s what Jack Gifford, the founding CEO of Maxim Integrated Products, used to like to say to me when we disagreed on something. I’m sure there was a modicum of truth in Jack’s words, especially early in our time working together.
However, Gifford would always tell me that! And Gifford, for those who knew him, was not exactly shy about telling you what he thought. He was right in your face, so there was no doubting how he felt on any issue.
So for me, worrying about what you don’t know became my biggest fear.
After eleven years of working with Gifford and helping build Maxim to over $1 billion per year in revenue, I moved on and began working at Maxim’s direct competitor, Micrel. I was in charge of turning around one of three divisions the company had.
After three months working at Micrel, I presented Micrel’s CEO, “Bob”, a “State of the Union” plan about the problems the division had and what the company needed to do to fix the problems. I had thought, based on my Maxim experience that Bob would want to hear about the problems I uncovered. After all, Gifford would have shot me if I hid problems from him.
Bob was different. As I quickly learned in that one hour meeting, he didn’t want to know about the problems. Each time I explained another problem the division had, Bob would say, “Now you’ve done it.”
I didn’t know what to make of what Bob was saying. It was a weird response because, as I would find out when I became CEO of my own company, you live in fear of being shielded from information.
After the fourth major problem I explained, Bob stood up, straightened his tie, and said, “I never want to have another meeting like this again.”
And we never did have another meeting like that again. I never told Bob about another problem the company had because Bob didn’t want to know.
Bob was the emperor wearing no clothes.
You can shut down the information flow as CEO if you’re not careful.
Four year later, after I turned around the division I was running to the most profitable division of Micrel, Bob tired of me and he fired me. I then started my own company.
I thought about my role as CEO. Who did I want to be like? Jack Gifford or Bob?
Regarding information flow, the answer was I wanted to be like Jack Gifford, not Bob.
In the early days of the company, it was easy to understand the issues and problems we were having because, as CEO, you’re involved in everything:
- I knew what the issues were that the engineering team had.
- I knew the issues that we were having recruiting.
- I knew the challenges we were having signing up reps to sell our products.
However, it’s one thing to know about problems. It’s another thing about how you’re communicating to the team about those problems. Do you communicate an interest in knowing about the problems, or do you subtly shut down the flow of information by not being open to what you’re hearing?
You need to demand brutal honesty from your team if you want to know about the problems your company faces.
It sounds easy, right? Brutal honesty. Just tell me the issues. However, one of the big challenges with being a CEO is that, as your company gets bigger, it can get harder and harder for your team to tell you what’s going on.
That’s where you attitude and communications skills come in. You have to work on creating an environment where it’s okay to challenge you, and where it’s okay to tell you news that you don’t want to hear.
That’s easier said than done because many people have worked for people like Bob where you get your head chopped off for telling the truth to power. For example, when you’re discussing a challenging engineering assignment for example, you may have to really work hard to coax out what the challenges are with completing the assignment on time.
A trusting environment takes a lot of work on your part.
It’s what you don’t know that can kill you.
The challenge as your company grows from a fledgeling startup to a going concern generating millions in revenue per year, is you can’t manage every detail. You’re now dependent upon others to help execute the plan your company has.
That’s where hiring really good people comes in. Bob, not surprisingly primarily hired sycophants. The sycophants told Bob what he wanted to hear, so problems weren’t addressed.
The problems resulted in Micrel missing its promises. Eventually, the investors had enough, and they forced Bob to sell the company.
So what drove me and worried me every day was what I didn’t know. What was my team not telling me. And, more than anything, I always wondered, like Jack Gifford said to me all those years ago, “Are you being myopic, Brett?”